“Humans are born ready for connection.” - Mary Gregory, Clinical Psychologist
There’s this fascinating and heartbreaking study from Dr. Edward Tronic from Harvard called the “Still Face Experiment.” In it he has a caregiver interact lovingly with a baby through facial expression, talking, touching, and all the things parents do. But then, after a couple of minutes, the parent turns her face off. She becomes still and unresponsive.
The baby notices. She squirms. Tries to get mom to engage. Eventually, she breaks down and cries. Thankfully, the study ends with the parent reconnecting and engaging with the child. The transformation is instant: Smiles, playfulness, and the give-and-take of connection returns.
Something’s got Your Attention
Now, apply the “Still Face Experiment” to everyday interactions. Something is stealing your attention and depleting your connections with others. Our smartphones are the culprit. And it’s not their fault entirely—we’ve permitted their pervasiveness.
The American Psychological Association researched the effects of constant tech interruptions and its effects on close relationships, especially romantic ones. They found couples “reported more conflict over technology use, lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms, and lower life satisfaction.”
They coined this interruption of connection as “technoference.” At Techless, we believe technology is a gift. Phones, when used as a tool, can benefit our lives. But, we’re witnessing a pandemic of disjointed connection from technoference.
A Technoference Story
For instance, one mother and writer shares her struggle with technoference while hanging with her family at Disney World. She witnessed most of the parents checking-out, staring at their phones, and ignoring their kids while waiting in line. Please know she didn’t come across as judgmental. Her observations were filled with compassion and concern:
"Of the parents sitting and standing among us, I’d say about 75%, were not connected or even speaking to one another. Looking down at their phones, they seemed to have missed that magical moment when two partners look at each other, and despite their intense exhaustion, know that the joy radiating from their children has made it all worthwhile. Looking back on past trips, I know that I’ve done the same," Denise D’Angelo Roland, founder of Intentionally Unplugged.
So, in the moment, she found creative ways to connect, to be silly, and to pass the time. She didn’t demonize using phones; instead, she knew people needed to come first in that moment. And technoference would also apply to our personal selves. Think about the moments you’ve missed to enjoy nature, a book, or being still. We can all look back and see the power we’ve given our phones to steal our attention and focus.
Looking up to Live
Your family and friends long for connection with you. Your mental health screams for a break. So, how can you look up from your phone and reconnect? Here are some easy suggestions to increase connection with others and with yourself….
1. Prioritize meals
Whether with a significant other, family, or besties, make meals count. Leave phones face down, in pockets, or in an agreed-upon location. Talk, laugh, and enjoy the time together. Meals are the universal language of connection and hospitality. They promote talking and good times.
You’re going to have busy nights where a sit down meal may not be possible, but it’s okay. Shoot for the next night.
2. Keep your free time…free
We often fill our free time with phone time. When you have a night off (or day), fill it with activities you and your family love. Instead of losing the day to endless scrolling, get lost in activities that promote connection and well-being.
Reciprocation is responding with equal attention or action. It shows empathy and develops connection.
When your friends, spouse, or kids engage you, reciprocate. If you truly are doing something pressing on your phone, let them know and say, “Hey, give me two seconds to finish ____ and I’ll be right there.” The quick acknowledgment honors the person and incentivizes you to finish your task.
When someone engages you in conversation, talk with them. Look up and listen. When your son invites you to play, dive in with a childlike spirit.
Believe me, this is hard. We all stare at our screens to fill downtime. It’s going to take intentional practice to make change. But, our time is our most precious commodity. When we are generous with it, it shows our love for others. Now, there are times when you have to check your phone for something important, so that’s where boundaries come into play.
4. Set phone boundaries
When are those key times your family needs you the most? When are key times you need to relax and be still for yourself? Set some clear boundaries and phone-free zones in your life. Whether meals, mornings, or conversations, pick those important life moments you know your phone will create technoference.
Likewise, set aside time to use your phone for checking email, getting quick social updates, etc. That way, you don’t feel the need to constantly check your phone for updates. Plus, it removes guilt and distraction. If you know you have X minutes set aside for your phone, you will spend that time more wisely on social media or email. By avoiding the two hour YouTube rabbit hole, you will avoid guilt over lost time.
We’re not arguing to ban all screen time. That’s rigid and unnecessary. Instead, we want to see you living fully. Connecting. Enjoying who and what matters most. And the most important step is to look up and live. There’s a beautiful world around you with people who long to connect with you.