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Katherine Hertlein is the director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program and a professor in the School of Medicine. She will present Relationships in a Digital Age: Obstacles and Opportunities at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Marjorie Barrick Museum as part of the University Forum lecture series. Here, Hertlein looks at how technology is shaping interpersonal relationships.
It’s Facebook-official: the internet and new technologies are in a relationship — with us.
As heavy consumers of technology, we are tied to internet-connected devices almost continuously. We check our emails in the morning, before bed, and an average of 15 times per day. We can connect to others an ocean away or gain information about a topic that we could not possibly access a decade ago. We rely on technology to help us more effectively move through the world, increase our social capital, and entertain us.
But with these advances come unintended (or unacknowledged) consequences. The ability we have to access others also provides a mechanism through which we, too, can be accessed. We may be accessed at home and off-hours by those with whom we only have connections via work and career. Former partners, peers, and friends can obtain updates on our daily life through quickly typing names into search engines. It is a way of staying connected without connecting.
These unintended consequences may have a substantial impact on others around us. By the time we identify how relationships are affected by these technologies, the technology we have figured out has been replaced by a new trend with its own set of implications and consequences.
Couples and families who are living in today’s world with technology as a prominent part in the organization of family life need to look at what specific devices, software, and applications have contributed to the function (or dysfunction) in their relationships. We should evaluate how factors such as access, affordability, accommodation, and acceptability advance or interfere with a relationship’s basic structure and functions. How does immediate and constant accessibility affect relationships in the home? How do we set rules in order to maintain the benefits of having these technologies in our lives, but limit the negatives?
With data from fields such as information technologies, education, sociology, psychology, and family studies, we are we developing a rich library from which to develop appropriate responses to these questions. Family studies scholars are piecing together the circumstances in which the internet can be used to augment relationships, as well as where the it may be causing problems. In some cases, this distinction is easy to make: for example, cases of pathological internet use, addiction, or even internet infidelity are commonly considered negative. In other cases, it may be more difficult to quantify the net impact on relationships without considering how families and couples interact with technology. Talking to an individual of the opposite sex via Facebook chat may be perfectly permissible in one couple’s relationship, but constitute a serious betrayal in another.
Technology’s role in our lives is not unilaterally positive or negative. The ways in which it bridges us to others outside of our relationship may both enrich that relationship or pull us away from each other. It may provide entertainment and greater opportunities to cultivate new ideas as much as it might promote isolation and foster a sense of disconnection. So what is exactly our relationship with technology? Let’s just say “it’s complicated.”
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