Pat Christen had an alarming wake-up call one day about the toll that technology was taking on her life -- and her family.
"I realized several years ago that I had stopped looking in my children's eyes," the HopeLab President and CEO said at a Huffington Post panel at Ad Week on Tuesday. "And it was shocking to me."
Christen's "a-ha" moment was an alarming one, but it's more common than you might think -- and it points toward a larger, and often undiscussed, byproduct of excessive screen time. The decline of eye contact is well-documented, and as we spend more and more of our time staring at screens, there's less time left over to look into people's eyes -- including the eyes of the people we care about most.
Between staring at computers during the work day and regularly gazing down at our phones, Americans spending more time with their eyes glued to their screens than ever before. According to recent estimates, the average American spends more than five hours per day using digital devices on computers and mobile devices (the number is higher, of course, for those who work in front of computer screens), and another four and a half hours watching television. Additionally, the average mobile user checks his or her phone 150 times a day (that's every six and a half minutes), and one recent survey found that young people in Britain spend more time each day on average on their phones than with their partners (119 vs. 97 minutes).
A Wall Street Journal article published in May, "Just Look Me In The Eye Already," cast a light on how technology use has affected our eye contact -- and the sizable toll that reducing eye contact during conversations could take on our relationships.
According to Quantified Impressions, a Texas-based communications analytics company, an adult makes eye contact between 30 and 60 percent of the time in a typical conversation, but emotional connection is built when eye contact is made during 60-70 percent of the conversation. In other words, the less eye contact, the less of a connection is made.
The growth of multitasking on mobile devices (i.e. sending email during dinner) and remote working -- in which conversations are mostly held over the phone -- have normalized the experience of having conversations with little or no eye contact, Noah Zandan, president of Quantified Impressions, told the Wall Street Journal.
"All too often we're like cornered animals with our eyes darting from device to human and back to device," Daniel Sieberg, author of "The Digital Diet: The Four-Step Plan To Break Your Tech Addiction And Regain Balance In Your Life," tells The Huffington Post. "Eye contact can be especially meaningful in today's world of constant partial attention and it conveys a sentiment that the person you're with matters. Taking that extra time when possible can really yield benefits with face-to-face interaction."
However, most of us have become accustomed to conversations where digital devices interrupt eye contact: You're in a conversation with an acquaintance whose gaze is directed down at a screen while you're speaking, a friend jumps into the dinner conversation without looking up from the text she's composing, or you catch yourself nodding along to your daughter's story while reading an email. These interactions aren't just what previous generations would have considered rude: They're also undermining our ability to connect with the people in our lives.
"You're not going to connect deeply with someone who is distracted," Daniel Goleman, author of the forthcoming book "Focus," tells The Huffington Post, explaining that declining eye contact signals that we're giving less attention to the people we're communicating with. In many cases, those are the people who are most important to us.
The importance of eye contact in human relationships, whether at the workplace or in any other setting, is difficult to underestimate. According to Psychology Today, it's the "strongest form of nonverbal communication." And according to a University of Miami study, over 43 percent of the attention we focus on someone is devoted to their eyes. It also plays a critical role in the development of emotional connections.
University of Aberdeen researchers found that when a group of people were presented with photos of two faces that were nearly identical -- the only difference was that in one photo, the eyes were looking away, while the other’s eyes looked into the camera -- subjects judged the faces with direct gaze to be more attractive and likable, the Telegraph reported.
"Eye contact, although it occurs over a gap of yards, is not a metaphor," psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon write in "A General Theory Of Love." "When we meet the gaze of another, two nervous systems achieve a palpable and intimate apposition."
Largely for this reason, the issue of declining eye contact has become a matter of concern among parents. Recently, comedian Louis C.K. told Conan O'Brien that he wouldn't be letting his daughters get smartphones.
“I think these things are toxic, especially for kids,” C.K. said. "They don't look at people when they talk to them and they don't build empathy.”
Many parents are concerned about what their own digital multitasking and lack of eye contact might be communicating to their children. Like Christen, blogger Rachel Marie Martin had a major realization about how important it was for her to look her children in the eyes.
"Nothing tells another person you matter more than looking at them in the eyes while they talk. It shows that what they are saying truly is important to you," Martin wrote in a recent blog post, "20 Things I Will Regret Not Doing With My Kids." "I want my kids to remember that there where times when their mother looked them in the eye and smiled. And for me this often means shutting my laptop, putting down my phone, stopping my list, and just giving them time."
As Goleman explains, communicating attention in this way is crucial to developing strong relationships, whether between friends, coworkers or parents and their children.
"Full attention," says Goleman, "is a form of love."
Also on HuffPost:
In an essay titled "<a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20500603,00.html" target="_blank">Being the Father I Never Had</a>," written in honor of Father's Day, the President wrote about his desire to be the best parent he could possibly be for daughters Sasha and Malia. He expressed regret for time spent away from the girls when they were younger, and resolved to be there for them more as they grew up. "When Malia and Sasha were younger, work kept me away from home more than it should have," <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20500603,00.html" target="_blank">Obama wrote in People magazine</a>. "At times, the burden of raising our two daughters has fallen too heavily on Michelle. During the campaign, not a day went by that I didn't wish I could spend more time with the family I love more than anything else in the world."
When a fan asked McCartney what he would do if he had a time machine, the former Beatles member said that he'd go back and spend more time with his mother. Although his lack of family time wasn't due to overworking -- she died when he was just 14 -- the sentiment still stands. McCartney <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/the-beatles/9896636/Paul-McCartney-I-wish-I-could-spend-more-time-with-my-mother.html" target="_blank">has said</a> that his love for his mother, and eventually letting go of his pain over losing her, inspired one of the band's greatest hits and most moving songs, "Let It Be": <blockquote>At night when she came home, she would cook, so we didn't have a lot of time with each other. But she was just a very comforting presence in my life. And when she died, one of the difficulties I had, as the years went by, was that I couldn't recall her face so easily. That's how it is for everyone, I think. As each day goes by, you just can't bring their face into your mind, you have to use photographs and reminders like that. So in this dream 12 years later, my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: 'Let it be.'</blockquote>
The 71-year-old's one regret, looking back at her life and career? “That I haven’t had more children," <a href="http://www.newyoumedia.com/hot-topics/top-stories/martha-stewart-talks/" target="_blank">she said in a NEW YOU magazine profile</a>. "But my daughter has two babies now, so the family is growing.”
Aung San Suu Kyi
Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has accomplished incredible feats in her career -- but she has regrets in her personal life. The dissident spent the past 20 years under house arrest in Rangoon, 2,000 miles away from her family in Oxford, England. Suu Kyi had the option to reunite with her family in the UK, but she knew that if she chose to leave, she might never be allowed to return and lead her people -- so she stayed. "Of course I regret not having been able to spend time with my family," <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19667956" target="_blank">Suu Kyi told the BBC</a>. "I would like to have been together with my family. I would like to have seen my sons growing up. But I don't have doubts about the fact that I had to choose to stay with my people here."
Hip-hop singer and producer Usher <a href="http://www.contactmusic.com/news/usher-regrets-not-slowing-down-for-his-late-father_1075097" target="_blank">said</a> that he regretted not slowing down to spend time with his sick father before it was too late. His father's final words, asking his son for forgiveness for not being around more when he was younger, inspired Usher to write a heartfelt song for his son called "Prayer For You." “Instead of being there when he was sick, I was working," <a href="http://www.contactmusic.com/news/usher-regrets-not-slowing-down-for-his-late-father_1075097" target="_blank">the R&B star told Contact Music</a>. "There was no amount of money that could have fixed my father’s health, but I could have just spent that time with him.”
Since adolescence, David Kim, the CEO of an investor consortium that operates chain restaurants like Sweet Factory, La Salsa, Cinnabon, Denny's and Baja Fresh, was motivated to work hard and succeed so that he could support his parents, who were first-generation immigrants from Korea. But sitting on his father's deathbed years later, he had a change of perspective that forced him to reevaluate his definition of success. "I regret not spending enough time with him, especially before he was going to go," Kim (pictured above on an episode of "Undercover Boss"), <a href="http://www.worldmag.com/2012/01/one_ceo_s_story" target="_blank">told World magazine</a>. This change in heart led Kim to quit his job so that he could spend more time with his wife and three children, while also working on his passion project Ignite Enterprise, a business education company for entrepreneurs.
Earlier this year, Former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan -- who left her job in 2008 just months before the company went bankrupt -- wrote a New York Times opinion piece, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/is-there-life-after-work.html?ref=opinion&_r=5&" target="_blank">"Is There Life After Work?"</a>, expressing her thoughts on work-life balance and the sacrifices she made for her career. "I don’t have children, so it might seem that my story lacks relevance to the work-life balance debate," <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/is-there-life-after-work.html?ref=opinion&_r=5&" target="_blank">Callan wrote</a>. "Like everyone, though, I did have relationships -- a spouse, friends and family -- and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over." Now, Callan says that although she can't make up for lost time, she is learning to find gratitude and appreciate the life she has.
Evangelist Billy Graham, "America's Pastor," <a href="http://www.politicsdaily.com/2011/01/24/billy-grahams-regret-i-would-have-steered-clear-of-politics/" target="_blank">confessed</a> that if he could have done one thing differently, he would have avoided political conflicts and spent more time with his family. Looking back, Graham <a href="http://www.politicsdaily.com/2011/01/24/billy-grahams-regret-i-would-have-steered-clear-of-politics/" target="_blank">told HuffPost Politics</a> that he would "spend more time at home with my family, and I'd study more and preach less."