Excessive monitoring by cell phone is evolving into a new relationship norm.

Cellphones have become ubiquitous. In a 2013 study, Tulane and Beckert found that 90 percent of both college and high-school participants owned a cellphone [i], while a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 92 percent of American adults owned a mobile phone, including smart phones.[ii] There are certainly benefits to owning a smart phone, but their harmful effects are now being scrutinized. Lopez-Fernandez et al. (2014), for example, described “mobile phone problematic use” as repetitive use of a cellphone to the point that it is counterproductive to one’s health or well-being.[iii]

Some people fear that excessive cellphone use is actually a form of addiction, and it is well known that addiction inescapably and inexorably impacts the loved ones of an addicted individual. Within families, addiction leads to rigid boundaries, poor communication, high levels of negativity and conflict, dishonesty, and social isolation. Could excessive cellphone use lead to similar outcomes? At present, we don’t know, because research on this topic is sparse.

Michael Shelton MS, LPC.Michael Shelton MS, LPC is a therapist at sexual treatment facilities including the Joseph J. Peters Institute and the Keystone Center. He speaks on issues of male sex and sexuality and is the author of four books, including Boy Crazy: Why Monogamy Is So Hard for Gay Men and What You Can Do About It.



Editor: Muhammad Talha

Carbonell et al. (2009) engaged in a search for articles describing addiction to the internet, video games, and cellphones [iv]. They found that internet addiction was the most studied of these subjects, but that cellphone addiction comprised only 2.2 percent of available articles. However, the research base is slowly starting to grow. In the last several years additional studies have appeared in general and addiction-specific journals, with such titles as “Addictive Personality and Problematic Mobile Phone Use” (2009) [v]; “Associations between Problematic Mobile Phone Use and Psychological Parameters in Young Adults” (2012) [vi]; and “Are We Addicted to Our Cell Phones?” (2016) [vii].

How is mobile phone use impacting romantic relationships? 

Research on cellphones and romantic relationships is also still in the early stages of examination. Teenagers, unsurprisingly, comprise the majority of study subjects. Subrahmanyam and Greenfield (2008) concluded that adolescent developmental issues of intimacy, sexuality, and identity are being transformed by mobile phones in ways that could be beneficial or harmful [viii]. Picard (2007) interviewed 615 teens age 13 to 18 and determined that “alarming” numbers of teens in dating relationships are being controlled, abused, and threatened by cellphones and texting, and that this abuse is kept hidden from parents or caregivers. One in three teens in the study who were in a relationship said they were text messaged 10, 20, or 30 times an hour by a partner who wanted to find out where they were, what they were doing, or who they were with [ix].

Draucker and Martsolf (2010) also found that electronic communication is used to monitor the whereabouts of a partner [x]. Finally, Lucero et al. (2014) conducted focus groups with teens engaged in dating relationships and determined that young women went to great lengths to monitor partners’ lives, while male participants unanimously agreed that their girlfriends constantly check on them using texting and social networking. 

Both sexes admitted to “stealing” a partner's phones to check their texting history. Of particular interest, participants in this study did not consider this excessive monitoring as problematic, but rather commonplace [xi]. Some argue that excessive monitoring is becoming the new norm for teens in dating relationships. This means that it's possible a teenager might feel slighted if a romantic partner doesn’t monitor his or her whereabouts. While many adults (including myself) would consider such monitoring a form of psychological abuse, teenagers can and often do look at it very differently.

What does the future hold for romantic relationships and cell phones? One possibility is that adolescent cellphone use and texting habits will change as they mature. In support of this hypothesis, Tulane and Beckert found a reduction in the quantity of texting as adolescents mature; in their study, most college students classified themselves as either light or medium texters while high-school students were predominantly medium or heavy texters[xii]. Similarly, Ling (2010) determined that as individuals mature they change their style of texting, and there is more use of the medium for instrumental purposes. As one woman in his study said, “There are not so many silly messages any more; that is OK, but I still send a lot of messages, you know, about practical things”.

Still, it is possible that incessant monitoring may become standard practice. Only time will tell.