In the new movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. When you first hear about it, you might find this plot outlandish, even if you know that the OS in question gets its sultry voice from Scarlett Johansen.
But the truth is that many of us spend more time with our desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets, phablets and other digital devices than with any of the actual humans in our lives, including romantic partners. Last year, according to one survey, American adults over 18 spent, on average, more than five hours each day on a computer or mobile device. When was the last time you logged that many hours with anyone you weren’t stuck in an elevator with?
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it may be a good time to examine your relationship with your devices. Has this become an obsessional affair? Here are five signs to watch for:
1. You’re sleeping with it: Most of us don’t quickly hop in the sack with a new love interest, but we immediately take our devices to bed with us. In a 2012 Time/Qualcomm poll, the majority of adults ages 45-64 said they kept their cell or smartphone right next to their bed, within arm’s reach. That number jumped to more than 75 percent for younger cellphone users. Meanwhile, less than 40 percent of those over 65 play so fast and loose with their cells. With age comes wisdom? Solution: Go retro—pull your alarm clock out of the mothballs! Waking up to that tooth-rattling buzz is more fun then you remember.
2. You can’t stop thinking about it: When did you last check your email? If you’re like more than 60 percent of respondents to a poll conducted late last year at the tech site Lifehacker, the answer is: You’re always checking email. If your mobile phone is set to “push” messages to you from your email server—for your work or personal account—then you are, in effect, constantly checking email. Imagine if your email were a person—would you ever ask someone “Do you have anything to tell me RIGHT NOW?” every second of every minute of every day? Such a relationship could perhaps be categorized as, oh I don’t know, unhealthy? Solution: Take charge of this relationship. For your personal accounts at least, change your email settings on your devices from “push” to “pull.” This puts you in control of when you will receive your emails.
See also: Solving The Passion Puzzle
3. You start and end your day with it: In a human romantic relationship, this would likely be an excellent sign. But this is be a good time for a reminder: This is not a romantic relationship. Author and personal development trainer Sid Savara advises against checking email first thing in the morning. Doing so, according to Savara, allows you to focus on things or tasks that are important to you, instead of responding to the desires of others. It’s a high-tech version of “Me Time,” and what relationship couldn’t benefit from a little more of that? Unplugging at night may be even more important: A 2013 study showed that people who go online within two hours of going to sleep were more stressed out than those who abstained. Solution: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Carve out tech downtime at the beginning and end of your day.
4. You’re whispering sweet nothings in its ear: Her is set in the near future, but voice control has become ubiquitous in computers and mobile devices since Apple introduced Siri in the fall of 2011. The technology has improved since its rocky start, but if you find yourself talking more frequently to your phone than on your phone, you may want to, um, dial it back a bit. And if you’re arguing with your phone, it’s seriously time for a break. Solution: It’s not you, Siri. It’s me. Try the silent treatment. Still tempted for some 2am pillow talk? Go to “settings” on your phone and shut her down for good. You’ll thank us later.
5. You’re spending too much money on it: A 2012 study by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants found that Americans spend the equivalent of 17 percent of their monthly mortgage or rent on their personal technology. Devices and their related expenses are modern-day utilities, but that doesn’t mean you need the new new thing every time it’s released. Nip that gear lust in the bud: It makes financial sense to replace your phone about every two years, the length of most carrier contracts. Those steep upgrade fees are a buzz kill. Solution: Control your urge to upgrade. Use the money you save to focus on actual human connections. You remember those, don’t you? And hey, it’s Valentines Day: Sign off, and go spend your extra cash on flowers for your partner (or, even better, for your mom).
Stills from the movie HER, starring Joaquin Phoenix, 2013
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection