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Digital Divides

New book helps families work through the challenges that fast-changing technology poses to relationships.

People  |  Jul 24, 2013  |  By Kate Stowell

Technology may change relationship dynamics. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Ten years ago, no one was worried about making a relationship "Facebook official." Cell phones were used for the sole purpose of talking. And nearly everyone would've said it's rude to interrupt dinner conservation to reply to the dings of something called a "text message."

This month, the book The Couple and Family Technology Framework: Intimate Relationships in a Digital Age hit bookshelves. Written by UNLV professor Katherine Hertlein and former UNLV professor Markie Blumer, the book sheds light on the impact technology is having on relationships and our standards for behavior, and how mental health professionals can help those struggling with the distress technology may be causing in their lives.

So, as we all navigate through this technology-driven world, Hertlein and Blumer shared some of the key takeaways from their research, giving us a little peek inside their new release.


1. You have to be aware of technology in your daily life.

The presence of technology in our lives happened rapidly, insidiously, and inconspicuously. Many people are not overtly aware of the impact technology has had on their relationships. They are simply operating the same way as they always have. Take showing comfort to a friend who has lost a loved one. At one point, that comfort might have come in the form of an in-person conversation, where you sat, patted your friend's back, and listened to them tell old stories.

Today, though, that comfort might come as an image of a bouquet of flowers with a comforting quote on it that is shared on your friend's Facebook page, or perhaps a consoling text message is sent. How do today's comforting gestures compare to those of a decade's ago?

Thus, despite the omnipresent nature of technology, there still is a need for an increased awareness around activities involving technology.

2. We need to think of technology as if it were a member of our family.

Within our family units and relationships, we need to recognize that as we grow and change, our use of technology grows and changes, just as technologies themselves are growing and changing. This is termed electronic development (or e-development) and points to the ideas that we need to conceptualize technology as if it were a member of our family.

Think about younger children and Facebook. This social media site is now so popular that some preteens and even young children want profiles. Instead of parents shielding them from social networking all together, parents can introduce their children to social media through child-appropriate sites like Togetherville or What's What (two social media sites for preteens and younger children). So as the children grow, they have a sense of what social media is, how to use it and how it, too, is growing and becoming a part of his or her life.

3. If you can't talk about it, you shouldn't be using it.

If you can't, don't, or aren't having conversations with your partner/spouse/friends/coworkers/ children/parents about technology and its impact on your relationship in terms of the rules, roles, and boundaries, then you're not going to successfully maximize the benefits of technology. You will also be vulnerable to the problems it may be creating in relationships.

You should be asking about activities that would potentially violate explicit and implicit relational rules. Things like, "Can you be Facebook friends with your ex-boy/girlfriend?" or "Is chatting online and establishing a relationship over the web considered infidelity?" While having these conversations might be hard for some, talking about and defining rules for your relationships will help minimize technological distress.

4. There are a lot of factors that will influence that conversation.

One important factor is called digital competency - in other words, the degree to which a person is proficient in the use of various technologies. What do they know about technology itself? Think about explaining TiVo to your grandparents compared to a child. The degree to which they understand and accept how technology works will impact the conversation.

5. Ecological elements influence our technology usage.

We need to be mindful of how different elements influence our technology usage and our relationships. The Couple and Family Technology Framework discusses the 7 A's or areas of ecological influence, which include:

  • Acceptability: Today, people accept technology - and the use of it - for various functions once deemed inappropriate in society (i.e. cell phone use at the dinner table).
  • Accessibility: People have access to the Internet on a daily and nearly unlimited basis from an array of locations.
  • Accommodation: There's a greater chance for people to act a certain way in "real time" but have different personas when it comes to online behavior and activities.
  • Affordability: The Internet and new media are widely available and affordable.
  • Ambiguity: Defining online behaviors as problematic can be difficult.
  • Anonymity: Online users can present themselves in any way they want.
  • Approximation: The Internet approximates or simulates offline, real-world situations (i.e. showing support and comfort via Facebook comments instead of through in-person interactions).

These A's influence our technology use and our relationships, and each one of these ecological factors needs to be talked about and attended to.