A Pixelated Relationship

By: McKayla Kirk, Edited by: Annelie Dahlstein

My relationship with my boyfriend is built on a solid foundation of memes, deep conversations, and a common love for accompanied silence.

In the six months that I knew him before starting a relationship with him, we had more conversations over Snapchat than we did in person. It was not until I started to spend more time with him in person that I realized how much my phone had hindered my ability to communicate with him in person as well as I could communicate over Snapchat. I suddenly had to be vulnerable without the aid of a pixelated screen… and it was terrifying.

In today’s digital world, we are finding ourselves navigating through friendships and romantic relationships with the help of technology. People are being faced with the task of managing their relationships both online and offline.

Communication researchers have studied how cell phones affect relationships – romantic and platonic – and have identified practical ways we can use digital channels for interpersonal communication.

In 2017, Dr. María-José Vidales-Bolaños and Dr. Charo Sádaba-Chalezquer, researchers at the University of Navarra, Spain, published an article in Comunicar that studied the influence of mobile phones on adolescents’ social relationships.

The researchers created a questionnaire that assessed the impact that mobile phones had on the quality and perceived benefits of grade school students’ relationships. The study explains that social capital “highlights the benefits that individuals acquire through participating in groups” and “the deliberate building of relationships with the goal of creating and obtaining resources.”

The researchers found that mobile phones did influence communication in adolescents’ social relationships. Mobile phone communication had a positive influence on the students’ actual social relationships if their social interactions online were equivalent to their social interactions offline. In other words, if they were maintaining the same, if not more, amount of friendships offline as they were online, the time that they spent online did not negatively affect their social interactions. Essentially, their social capital from the interactions was the confidence they gained from this balance between their virtual life and reality. Their screen-time had aided their social lives rather than hindering them.

While friendships make up most of our relationships, another study, published in Communication Quarterly, examined the impact that cell phones have on romantic relationships.

In 2011, Robert Duran, Lynne Kelly, and Teodora Rotaru, communication researchers from the University of Hartford, conducted a study on how mobile phones affect a romantic couple’s autonomy and connection, or the conflicting desires to be individuals or a couple.

The researchers surveyed 210 undergraduate students within a single private university and found that cell phone usage ultimately caused conflict and provoked rule-making within the relationships. Because cell phones give us the ability to stay connected on a more continuous level, some people complained about not feeling virtually connected enough with their significant other, while others felt they were too connected to their significant other.

The study explained, “Lower levels of satisfaction with the use of cell phones in romantic relationships and higher availability expectations were significantly associated with less satisfaction with amount of time with partner, with feelings of restricted freedom, and with more desire to control the partner.” In order to mediate the tension, couples would set rules and guidelines as to how cell phones would play a role in their relationship.

The researchers found that couples weren’t always sure how to manage this conflict, yet, the lack of rules caused couples to feel distant while the abundance of rules seemed to put too much pressure on being together.

In order to see how much my cell phone impacts my relationships, I participated in a 72-hour cleanse from social media. For this cleanse, I was not allowed to use any kind of social media platforms, including iMessage and FaceTime. I was only able to make phone calls, and Gmail was only used for school purposes.

Throughout the first day, I found myself constantly reaching for my phone to see if I had any notifications. Honestly, it made me so sad to see my blank lock screen that I had to set my wallpaper to something with words.

By the end of the last day, I’d gotten used to not picking my phone up as much. I was able to get so much more homework completed since I wasn’t getting sucked into my Facebook and Instagram timelines. I could very easily spend an hour scrolling through funny videos – the apps can even scroll for me!

I quickly realized that I do not have to have social media to feel connected to people. I primarily use social media to see what other people are doing, but I rarely contact them directly. I am merely looking at their lives through a window, and this cleanse showed me that I can very easily live without that distraction. Referring to the first study, my social capital resulting from my time scrolling through my newsfeed is low because I benefit very little from this social activity.

I think the hardest part of the cleanse was not being able to text my boyfriend. He is the only person I regularly text, and not being able to talk to him, made me feel very disconnected from him. Like the participants in the second study, he and I struggled with our autonomy and connection. Having the ability to text him throughout the day makes me feel closer to him when our schedules don’t allow us to be together in person. He did not mind the virtual time apart while I felt distant from him.

In the days following the cleanse, I have reorganized the apps on my phone in a way that encourages me to communicate directly with people: WhatsApp, GroupMe, Marco Polo, etc., rather than watching their lives unfold from afar – Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

We are not just pixelated profile pictures and disappearing text messages. We are living and breathing people who are capable of love, laughter, and kindness. Once we are able to see the full potential that face-to-face interaction has for relationships, we will be able to use cellphones effectively. Until then, I will be patiently waiting for my boyfriend to send me the latest meme so that I can feel close to him.

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