Technology in Couple and Family Relationships
I can remember the first time I ever used the Internet. I was just starting high school and my parents had gotten a computer with something called “Prodigy”, an online service allowing dial-up connection to the Internet. I can still hear the sound of the modem waiting for the screen to come up; the anticipation of when the connection would be made; and being amazed I could write a report without looking up something in the musty, nearly-complete set of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia in the dank and webby basement. No disrespect to Funk & Wagnalls, but there was something more magical about being able to have information with the satisfying click of a keyboard.
Fast forward 30 years: I have built a career on investigating how that little click of a mouse and the buzz of a modem coming to life has impacted nearly everything we do in our relationships. The speed with which we have adopted our technologies is unlike any other advances in modern life including the Industrial Revolution. The world has exponentially adopted Internet technologies at an astonishing rate. For example, Asia has the highest number of Internet users with close to 3 billion. Closer to home, nearly 94% of the North American population is connected (Internet World Stats, 2023).
As a scholar, I am well aware of the research detailing the impacts of technology to our lives. I understand the statistics, assessments, and terms common to us now in understanding technology use and can speak with authority (and indifference) about the patterns we observe. Yet as a wife, sister, daughter, aunt, and mother, I can’t help but wonder what further changes technology might mean - really mean - for my connection to and relational well-being of my family.
It may be tempting for some who are quite familiar with digital spaces to honor and promote the value of technology in our lives. It certainly does connect us to each other and can effectively bridge relationships over distance. It allows us to provide therapy services to distant family members (McCoy et al., 2013). It helps couples solve problems, make arrangements for dates, and spice up their intimate lives. There is also another camp who will too easily vilify the Internet. There are plenty of studies which document its cold and detached nature, allow for opportunities to deceive others, engage in surveillance, bully others, and serve as a platform for a new behavioral addiction (Özarıcı & Cangöl Sögüt, 2022).
The truth is the answer is both. Technology affects couples and families in predictable ways. Termed the Couple and Technology framework (Hertlein, 2012), this model describes how the unique elements of the Internet such as its affordability, accessibility, and anonymity affect both the structure and process of relationships. Structurally, technology affects our roles, rules, and boundaries in our personal relationships. Couples, for example, are often aversive to rules about technology in their own relationships, but believe that other couples should have rules governing technology use. In the case of families, the way in which parents establish rules to monitor their children’s technology usage affects the risks to which the child is exposed (Nguyen et al., 2023). As it pertains to roles, young people often know more about Internet technologies which make it difficult for some parents to govern their behavior, thus putting their children in a more elevated position in the family hierarchy (Wang, 2020).
The Internet can cause boundaries to be diffuse, increasing the potential for such issues as confusion on whether particular behavior constitutes cheating (Hertlein et al., 2017) and increases the likelihood of saying things to someone online or via messaging that you would never say in person. In families, the diffuse boundaries enable others both known and unknown to us and our children make contact, thus exposing them to information that is developmentally inappropriate or even harmful. This is a particular concern when parents no longer live together and one parent with a degree of pathology may have unfettered access to say and share anything they wish to their children.
Technology also affects relationship initiation, maintenance, and termination. In couple relationships, we can meet many more people via online match-making and the increased exposure to friends of friends via social networking (Eichenberg et al., 2017). To maintain relationships, couples use technology to check in more often with each other during the day, to resolve conflict, and to be vulnerable in ways they do not feel comfortable to do so in person. There are a myriad of apps which are dedicated to supporting satisfaction in couple relationships and teach communication skills. The Internet has shaped the way we bring children into our lives (Eichenberg et al., 2022). Families can use video games and other technologies to develop connections and improve their ability to work together (Eddy et al., 2021).
To shape how technology affects your relationships, it comes down to assessing the effect of the Internet on each of these areas and identify how to make technology work for you and within your relationships. For example, use technology to assist you in making rules that the whole family can abide by, such as a common alarm or monitoring time online with digital well-being apps. To appropriately regulate boundaries, couples must have conversations and what their personal boundaries are, both on- and offline, and identify how the Internet and apps can help support these boundaries. To maintain relationships, encourage each other to use synchronous modes of communication if you need support and rely on asynchronous methods to solve problems (Hertlein & Chan, 2020). Finally, families must become savvy to different types of software and enact monitoring strategies to keep their children safe, even if they are using the computer to merely explore the online version of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia.
Eddy, B., Clayton, C., & Hertlein, K. M. (2021). Our family is a team: A tool to establish an effective family structure. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 16(1), 95-108.
Eichenberg, C., Huss, J., & Küsel, C. (2017). From Online Dating to Online Divorce: An overview of couple and family relationships shaped through digital media. Contemporary Family Therapy, 39(4), 249–260.
Eichenberg, C., Huss, J., Küsel, C., & Hertlein, K. (2022). Desire to Have Children and the Internet: Aspects for Psychosomatic Practice. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 1–15.
Gruchel, N., Kurock, R., Bonanati, S., & Buhl, H. M. (2022). Parental involvement and Children's internet uses - Relationship with parental role construction, self-efficacy, internet skills, and parental instruction. Computers and Education, 182, 104481.
Hertlein, K. M. (2012). Digital Dwelling: Technology in couple and family relationships. Family Relations, 61(3), 374–387.
Hertlein, K. M., & Chan, D. (2020). The rationale behind texting, videoconferencing, and mobile phones in couple relationships. Marriage and Family Review, 56(8), 739-763.
Hertlein, K. M., Dulley, C., Chang, J., Cloud, R., & Leon, D. (2017). Does absence of evidence mean evidence of absence? Managing the issue of partner surveillance in infidelity treatment. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 32(3-4), 323-333.
Internet World Stats (2023). World Internet Users and 2023 Population Stats. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from this source.
Maftei, A., Solomon, A. M., & Holman, A. C. (2022). Predicting women’s social media infidelity: facebook addiction, relationship satisfaction, and moral disengagement. Studia Psychologica, 64(2), 173–187.
McCoy, M., Hjelmstad, L. R., & Stinson, M. (2013). The Role of Tele-Mental Health in Therapy for Couples in Long-Distance Relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 12(4), 339–358.
Nguyen, T., Nguyen, T. T., Do, H. N., Vu, T. B. T., Vu, K. L., Do, H. M., Nguyen, N. T. T., Doan, L. P., Vu, G. T., Do, H. T., Nguyen, S. H., Latkin, C. A., Ho, C. S. H., & Ho, R. C. M. (2022). Parent-Child Relationship Quality and Internet Use in a Developing Country: Adolescents' Perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 847278–847278.
Özarıcı, E., & Cangöl Sögüt, S. (2022). The relationship between internet addiction and risky health behaviors in university students: A cross‐sectional study in Turkey. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 58(1), 214–220.
Samara, M., Massarwi, A. A., El-Asam, A., Hammuda, S., Smith, P. K., & Morsi, H. (2021). The Mediating Role of Bullying and Victimisation on the Relationship Between Problematic Internet Use and Substance Abuse Among Adolescents in the UK: The Parent–Child Relationship as a Moderator. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 493385–493385.
Wang, Y. (2020). Parent-child role reversal in ICT domestication: media brokering activities and emotional labours of Chinese study mothers in Singapore. Journal of Children and Media, 14(3), 267–284.
We welcome guest columnist, Katherine Hertlein. Dr. Hertlein is a member of the TCI Advisory Board and has provided multiple courses for the TCI community, including One Screen, Many Faces: Creating Space For Working with Couples and Families Via Telehealth, Best Practices for Telebehavioral Health Documentation in Couple and Family Therapy, and Systemic Supervision over Telehealth.
Dr. Hertlein will be providing a live webinar on May 12, from 10am-5pm EDT called "Technology in Couple and Family Relationships". Join us and earn 6 CEs!
About Dr. Katherine Hertlein, PhD:
Dr. Hertlein earned her PhD at Virginia Tech and her master's degree from Purdue University Calumet. Across her academic career, she has published over 90 articles, 40 book chapters, and 12 books in the areas of couple therapy, infidelity, sex therapy, behavioral health, and the impact of technology on couple and and family relationships. Her contributions in sex therapy promote a paradigm shift in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions in couple relationships, are considered seminal texts, and used by couple and family therapy programs widely. Her contributions in the area of technology include the development of the core competencies for behavioral health which can be applied to all of the behavioral health disciplines, and the creation of the first comprehensive framework detailing the effect of technology on relationships which has been applied cross-culturally.