Let's consider how technology affects our relationships

Dr. Gadget: My daring idea for health care in Alberta

June 1, 2017

Dr. Wesley D. Jackson, MD, CCFP, FCFP

Not long ago, I was listening to a TED Talk by Dr. Robert Waldinger,1 given in November 2015, about the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This study, which began in 1938, prospectively tracked the lives of 724 men for more than 75 years, year-after-year, asking about their work, home lives and health to determine what keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life. The answer to this question was not fortune or fame, as many of the participants predicted as youth. Instead, the clear message that came from the study was encapsulated in the following simple statement: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

Dr. Waldinger notes that the study highlights three main lessons about relationships.

1. People who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than their peers who are less well connected.

2. It’s not the number of friends you have, or whether you are in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your relationships that matters.

3. Good relationships don't just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.

Today’s technology offers incredible opportunities to be close to those we care about. A couple of weeks ago, my almost two-year-old grandson called his grandma just to “talk.” He was playing with his mother’s phone, saw grandma’s picture, tapped it, and in just a few seconds he was able to see, hear and interact with his grandma. He didn’t care about the years of development, the incredible design of the technologically advanced tool, or the time and effort his mother had spent to insert the picture and connect it to the correct number. He only cared about the relationship (and so did grandma).

Conversely, technology, used improperly, can interfere with and often harm relationships. A recent survey of Canadians conducted by McAfee2 revealed the following about those surveyed.

  • 38% spend equal time online at home as they spend face-to-face with others.
  • 40% feel that their partner gives more attention to their device when together.
  • Another 45% report arguments over being on a device when together.

Anyone who has had an argument using text messages can attest to the deleterious effect this form of communication can have on otherwise reasonable human beings. This same tool, texting, used properly, can bring people more in touch and help build relationships. Social media, which has incredible potential to bring people closer together, can quickly become un-social media as etiquette and tact tend to be lost with hurtful, unfiltered comments.

Depression can deepen with the impression that “everyone else’s life is better than mine.” It seems that self-esteem is established by the number, rather than the quality, of relationships where “friends” are replaced by “followers.”

The McAfee survey suggested in conclusion: Keep your devices close but your relationships closer. Not surprisingly, there is an app for that. A group of developers (REDspace) in Nova Scotia have released Put Your Phone Down3 available on Android and Apple, which encourages users to do just that for as long as possible. Interestingly, initial use suggests that the average time away from the phone is around 10 minutes, but individuals have been showing improvement the more they use the app.

Of course, technology is also an important factor in the medical field. Electronic medical records (EMR) are incredible tools allowing the opportunity for unprecedented knowledge about our patients and can be amazing teaching tools when used correctly. Unfortunately, the EMR can also dominate the patient-physician interaction if we allow this to happen. As physicians we also have remarkable online tools available to us, such as Smart Decisions4 on the MyHealth.Alberta.ca website. These tools, while educating patients and guiding them to focus on a particular decision point, can be isolating. They will be much more effective when discussed face-to-face, after the homework has been done.

So my wish would be for everyone involved with technology in any way (and that would include just about everyone) to consider how the technology is used and how it affects relationships. After all, our physical and mental health and, in fact, our very lives may depend on this. As Dr. Waldinger asks: “If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?”


1. ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness

2. securingtomorrow.mcafee.com/consumer/consumer-threat-notices/connected-relationships-valentines-2017/

3. putyourphonedownapp.com

4. myhealth.alberta.ca/health/pages/conditions.aspx?Hwid=share#hw160633

The Alberta Medical Association stands as an advocate for its physician members, providing leadership & support for their role in the provision of quality health care.