These concerning results were revealed in a 2015 survey, “The Internet and Relationships”, and followed an investigation in 2012 by the national counselling service that found almost 80 per cent of Australian practitioners had counselled clients who had concerns about the impact of digital communications tools on their relationships.
Jen*, 28, from Newcastle believes excessive use of the internet destroyed her long-term relationship after her partner began interacting with people on Facebook most nights rather than spending time with her. She said initially his internet use appeared to be innocent, but over time he became more and more withdrawn to the point they were barely communicating. Later she learnt he had been flirting with multiple women online, in what she described as “emotional cheating”.
“He became extremely secretive, taking his phone to the bathroom and things like that,” she said. “We stopped being intimate and it made me feel so insecure. I decided to check his phone and discovered he’d been talking to women online. I ended things soon after.”
Jen says she will never stand for a partner choosing the internet over face to face time with her in the future after the pain she’s experienced. “We’d never discussed what we both considered to be a reasonable amount of time online but now I’m really direct about what I’ll accept.”
Kelly Pavan, psychologist and clinical services manager at CatholicCare has almost 20 years’ experience working with couples. She said while humans had adapted to the use of technology to stay connected in a busy world, social media was designed to keep people coming back for more.
“Technology use is engineered to be highly addictive,” Ms Pavan said. “A quick Instagram check can blur hours into a virtual black hole and this can prevent us from forming and maintaining healthy relationships.”
This has led to a relatively new, but widespread, relationship problem that psychologists have dubbed, “presentism”.
“Presentism refers to a person being there in body but psychologically absent,” Ms Pavan said. “It is typically caused by the excessive internet use of one person which leads to the other person in the relationship feeling neglected and under-valued.”
Robyn Donnelly, co-ordinator of marriage and relationship education at CatholicCare says technology is unavoidable in modern life, which is why social media use is explored in significant detail in all four of the courses she teaches.
“Social media and the internet can be a great positive in a relationship when used for shared things such as booking restaurants or researching holidays,” she said. “But there are negatives; we know Facebook can make people feel like the grass is always greener. Problems arise when people develop an ‘I’ mentality and believe they have a right to place their online interests ahead of their partner.”
Ms Donnelly said the key to avoiding conflict and resentment was establishing boundaries. “Setting boundaries around when and how we use the internet, such as not at meal times and implementing general time parameters, is not about power and control but loving respect,” she said.
“Couples have been responding extremely well to the social media component of the courses. The goal is to build the emotional bank account.”
Sarah Hoppe and her husband Dean, from Medowie, have been together five years and were recently married. They are currently completing one of Ms Donnelly’s relationship education courses, to enhance their already strong connection, and have appreciated the social media section.
Ms Hoppe said early in the relationship she and her partner argued about social media use but were able to talk and resolve the issues honestly. The couple now actively limit the time they spend online to ensure they maintain a healthy connection.
“We discussed and saw the importance of setting specific times when we use social media,” Ms Hoppe said. “When we are together we will try and limit the time spent on our phones because you don’t realise how distracting it can be. It can leave the other person feeling undervalued and less important so we make sure that when we decide to spend time together it’s without our phones.
“From Robyn’s course we have learnt how important it is to openly communicate and not take the other person’s feedback as criticism. We all have areas to work on and improve – the course can only strengthen your relationship.”
No doubt the majority of couples would benefit from the same insight.
*Name has been changed.
Bishops’ online guide
The internet can be a highly positive instrument for the advancement of society when used thoughtfully and respectfully. Unfortunately there is also a downside to this technology, as highlighted in Aurora’s examination of online pornography among teenagers, and excessive screen time in adult relationships.
These issues along with; cyber bullying, identity fraud, data protection, equal access and the danger of people sacrificing “real-life” connections to spend more time online, prompted the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference to address the subject in its 2019-2020 Social Justice Statement, Making it Real: Genuine human encounter in our digital world.
The statement affirms the positive possibilities digital media offers, while warning of those elements that are harmful to the dignity of individuals and the common good. Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long Van Nguyen, chairman of the Bishops’ Commission for Social Justice – Mission and Service, says the statement offers 10 steps we all can take to “help each one of us incarnate our solidarity — to give it flesh and bones — both online and face to face”.
- Make your online presence one of dignity and respect
- Be present to others in the real and virtual world
- Take care of yourself and others
- Promote digital literacy in every community
- Do not leave our sisters and brothers behind
- The local community is a place to make the virtual real
- Protect the personal data of citizens
- Join the call for transparency and accountability
- Truth and trustworthiness must be guaranteed
- We are called to be citizens of the digital world.
To read the 2019-2020 Social Justice Statement go to: socialjustice.catholic.org.au/publications/social-justice-statements#SJS2019