How can we enjoy all the tools technology puts at our fingertips while avoiding the pitfalls?

There are few technological developments more significant than smartphones, social media, and the “connectedness” of everything. Learning, relaxing, working, creating, socializing– the possibilities smartphones present seem endless. 

And that’s part of the problem. 

Smartphones also create new possibilities for distraction, disconnection, and destructive habits.

We need to our phone in its place

Ask yourself, “Do I have a healthy relationship with my phone?” I’ll try to avoid using the word “addiction,” but consider the following information with an open mind.

  • Our phones are typically the first thing we reach for when we wake up, the last thing we touch before we go to sleep, and the one thing we can’t imagine living without.
  • Americans open their phones 160 times daily, or once every 9 minutes.
  • The average person spends 4 hours and 10 minutes on mobile devices daily.
  • Users click, tap, and swipe their phones 2,617 a day. 
  • 17.3% of parents admit they spend more time on their phones than with their children. (The key word here is “admit.”)
  • Employees use their phones 56 minutes per workday for non-work related purposes.

Okay. We use our phones a lot. We have to, right? Well, about half of Americans describe themselves as having “an addiction  to their phones.”

All the convenience and connectivity can come with unintended consequences. The impact of all that use is staggering. 

  • Reduced frequency and quality of face-to-face conversations.
  • Decreased physical activity and increased obesity.
  • Poor sleep patterns.
  • Reduced concentration, short-term memory, and problem-solving skills.
  • Increased stress, anxiety, depression, insecurity, and loneliness.

Yikes! When it comes to smartphone use, keep two things in mind. First, this isn’t a zero-sum game. We don’t have to choose between using our phones 24/7 or not using them at all. Just like our diets, most of us have room to improve.

We need to realize the game is rigged

These technologies are designed to get your attention, keep it, and profit. Developers know all about brain chemistry. We’ll have to intentionally increase our mindfulness to avoid manipulation.

Here are some simple, practical strategies from the experts. 

  1. Turn off notifications for everything on your phone that you reasonably can. Check your phone when you choose to, not when your phone commands you to.
  2. Ban your phone from your bedroom. Get an actual alarm clock.
  3. Try the 50/50 Rule. No phone use for 50 minutes when you wake up and 50 minutes before you want to go to sleep.
  4. There’s an app for that! Use your phone to help you not use your phone. (Apps like Freedom, YourHour, Flipd, Offtime, Mute, and Moment can help you set goals and make curbing phone use fun.)
  5. Use your phone’s “Focus” and “Do Not Disturb” features.
  6. Move your most distracting apps off your home screen.
  7. Schedule a screen-free hour into your day.
  8. Create a contest (and accountability) with a family member or friend to reduce phone use.

Be honest and good to yourself

Maybe you just need to be more mindful of the time spent on your phone. Set small, incremental goals and gamify the process. You may need to face up to a full-blown phone addiction. Ironically, you can easily google resources to get help.

The phrases “generational cycle” and “cycle breaker” have recently become large parts of the conversation about family health. Searches for “generational cycle breaker” have increased by 180% in the past year on platforms like Google and YouTube.

What is a “generational cycle?”

  • In the simplest form, it’s what one generation passes on to the next.
  • What gets passed on can be positive/healthy and negative/unhealthy. 
  • In a relationship context, it includes traits, habits, attitudes, and behavior patterns.
  • “Generational cycle” draws attention to the impact parents and caregivers have on children.

We’ve all recognized this dynamic with physical qualities and attributes. “She has her father’s eyes.” But these dynamics also impact psychological, emotional, relational, and familial attributes and qualities.

What is a “cycle breaker?”

  • Someone who recognizes they have inherited unhealthy qualities and attributes from their upbringing and environment.
  • These qualities and attributes may be demonstrated in their thoughts, emotions, and relationships with others, particularly in the family they have created.
  • A “cycle breaker” recognizes the unhealthy things they have inherited and deliberately acts to avoid passing these behaviors on to their children. They work to break the cycle.

It might help to think about baggage. There may have been substance abuse, poor communication patterns, destructive reactions to conflict, explosive anger, or simply hopelessness that has been a heavy part of the “baggage” passed down for multiple generations. 

We don’t know how many people have been affected by this harmful baggage. We do know it’s possible to put that baggage down and pass on something healthy and hopeful to the next generation.

This is why First Things First exists.

Our mission is to provide resources that guide people in their relationships so they can live better lives. Our vision is for every family to have healthy relationship skills to pass down from generation to generation.

We’ve been in pursuit of this vision for the last 26 years. There are three key factors in breaking and creating generational cycles.

  1. Even though they struggle under their weight, individuals are often unable to see the baggage they have inherited. Some outside influence– a mentor, spiritual guide, counselor, or coach –needs to come alongside them. People in these roles can help individuals identify and release their inherited baggage and pick up tools to help them build healthy relationships and enjoy a better life.
  1. Stopping negative generational cycles and starting new, healthy cycles is difficult. It’s a process. Hope, healing, and developing new thought patterns take time. Individuals need to accept and make peace with what was before they can embrace what could be. Plus, it’s all too easy to fall back into old patterns of dysfunctional behavior when it’s all you’ve ever known.
  1. Unhealthy relationships perpetuate negative generational cycles. It requires healthy relationships to create positive generational cycles. 

The COVID-19 pandemic generated a surge of interest in family dynamics and mental and relational health. This makes sense. Most of us were spending more time together than ever before. Dysfunction in homes was heightened by the loss of normal routines and stability. Looming uncertainty took a huge toll on individuals and families. No demographic was spared. 

If there was any silver lining, it was the increased awareness of necessary support systems to help families. Professionals and individuals alike were prompted to understand generational cycles. 

This year, First Things First is beginning a new three-year strategic plan to further our vision. Facilitating relationship education in our community is still the main focus of our organization, but we are expanding our collaborative partnerships and services to include coaching, case management, and access to free or reduced therapy. 

There’s a story about an older fish crossing currents with two younger fish. The older fish makes small talk by asking, “How’s the water today, fellas?” Almost in unison, the younger fish reply, “Fine,” as they continue on their way. Then one of the younger fish turns to the other and asks, “What the heck is water?” 

Of course, the moral of the story is that the younger fish have been so busy doing fish things that they’ve never noticed the most obvious element of their environment.

We’re reaching a saturation point in our environment where digital technology is standard and so deeply embedded that we barely even notice it, let alone question it. We’re busy doing our human things. 

A question like why there is a screen in the gas pump showing highlights from a late-night talk show hardly seems worth asking. Exploring how all of this technology affects us, our families, and society can seem like a quirky curiosity. Just enjoy it, right?

It’s become difficult to think of an aspect of everyday life that doesn’t run on ones and zeros zipping through a server in some far-off, climate-controlled room. As much as I could live without commercials while I’m pumping gas, I can’t imagine life without today’s remarkable technologies. 

I’ve become absolutely dependent on my smartphone, smartwatch, tablet, and laptop. And streaming music and movies. And my car navigating as its sensors help keep me safe. And Alexa turning on my lights. And Google answering my questions in a nanosecond. And artificial intelligence anticipating when I’ll be low on coffee. 

It goes on and on. You get the point. But we can’t just swim around in this stuff without asking sensible questions. Sure, I love what technology has given me, but what is it taking? Should I be concerned that the smartphone in my pocket is apparently not convenient enough? Wearable technology is expected to grow to 489.1 million devices globally this year.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of screen time and social media, particularly for children and teens. About half of teens report feeling overwhelmed by the daily notifications they receive. Teenagers who spend five hours a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have suicide risk factors than those with one-hour use.

Smartphones, laptops, and Wi-Fi allow many of us to collaborate with our co-workers from home. That’s awesome. But research indicates that most infidelity occurs between co-workers and begins via text and email– avenues of communication that lend themselves to secrecy and allow intimacy to escalate quickly. That’s tragic.

The average American adult reportedly checks their phone 344 times a day. 35% admit to using or looking at their phone while driving, causing 26% of car accidents and killing 11 people per day. 

There are genuine catastrophes associated with our infatuation with technology. And there’s some plain puzzling stuff. 61% of Americans reported that they had recently texted someone in the same room. Over half say their smartphone is their most valued possession. According to multiple surveys, a third of Americans indicated they would rather give up sex than their smartphone. Um, what?

Does. Any. Of. This. Sound. Healthy? Can we talk about our culture’s relationship with technology and take an honest look at our own? Can we learn how to enjoy the benefits of technology for ourselves and our families while avoiding these hazards?

Over the next few weeks, this space will engage the question, “What the heck is water?” I hope to see you here.

I just turned 33 years old. I married my husband when I was 23, which means we’re approaching our 10-year anniversary. My husband was 30 when we married, which means he’s approaching the big 4-0 in just a few short months. (If you know him, please remind him of this. He loves it.)

I won’t bore you with all the details of how we met, but it started with a college research project I was working on. My goal was to write a journalistic research paper on why the average age of marriage was quickly on the rise. In 1990, the average age to marry was 20 for women and 23 for men. By 2010, the average age had risen to 29 for women and 30 for men. My project guidelines required me to find three unbiased interviewees. So, I asked a 29-year-old barista from Starbucks, whom I barely knew, if I could ask him a few questions about his views on romantic relationships and marriage. 

What I Learned About My Husband

During that interview my husband really admired marriage and saw it as a future goal. He had a history of mismatched relationships that consisted of rivaling ideals and misaligned commitments. However, he revered marriage and was consistently in pursuit of finding “the right person.” This surprised me. He drove a motorcycle, had tattoos, played guitar, and categorized himself as an artist. I made an unfair assumption that he was probably just “playing the field” or “having fun.” To my surprise, we were married 16 months later.

According to a Pew Research study released this June, America has reached the highest number of never-married individuals on record. Currently, 25% of 40-year-olds or older have never been married. This is a significant increase from 20% in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. With the rise in cohabitation, it’s tempting to assume the majority of these individuals are living with someone. However, only 22% reported they are currently cohabitating. 

While these findings alone may lead us to believe that marriage is dead in our country, there’s another side to the story. This 2023 study also revealed 63% of Americans believe it is important for couples to get married if they intend to spend the rest of their lives together. A similar study released by Pew in 2014 reported only 53% of Americans felt this way, revealing a marked increase in this viewpoint over the last decade. 

Here’s Why This Matters

While fewer people are getting married overall, it’s not because they don’t have the desire to do so or, like my husband, revere marriage itself as a major step in commitment. In general, individuals want to be more cautious with making commitments and “test their relationship” by living together or staying together for longer lengths of time before saying, “I do.” Not to mention the cultural trend to obtain a degree and build a career before considering marriage at all. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but it does play a major role in establishing priorities for how we measure “success” and “fulfillment” in life.

This theory holds true across race, ethnicity, and socio-economic divides as well. A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine found that low-income individuals desired marriage for themselves and saw it as a standard for living a fulfilling life. However, a multitude of factors kept them from pursuing and committing to relationships, including money problems, substance abuse, and generational trauma.

Marriage Rate

While the marriage rate is certainly decreasing across our nation, I’d like to propose a different interpretation. It’s not because we don’t desire it; it’s because we’ve slowly shifted its priority. While the reasons why are myriad, and every situation and relationship has its own story to tell, marriage isn’t dead. 

(But it has become the houseplant in the corner we forget to care for. We know having the houseplant has many benefits for our overall health, including better air quality in our home and an overall mental health boost. But there are a million other things on our to-do lists that can keep us from prioritizing those sad, drooping leaves).

What can we do to help marriage become more of a priority again in our nation? Does it matter in the long run? In next week’s column, we’ll take a look at building a better understanding of commitment and the key elements of healthy relationships. We’ll also take a fresh look at the influence of generational cycles.


Karney. (2020). Socioeconomic Status and Intimate Relationships

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