02/13/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

Disconnect to Reconnect This Valentine's Day

During a romantic dinner with my husband, I glanced up briefly from my iPhone long enough to observe an incredible sight. A couple, both on their phones, had situated their 2-year-old son in a high chair with his own smartphone in front of him. Around his phone was a neat semi-circle of penne pasta -- an arrangement that allowed him to easily transfer his dinner to his mouth without ever taking his eyes off the screen.

I immediately tweeted about it.

With Valentine's Day quickly approaching, this scene, or one similar to it, is likely to be replayed in restaurants and homes across the country as we all seek to balance the meaningful connections in our physical lives with the multiple connections in our digital ones.

Few adults are immune to the siren call of the smart phone. Just this week Pew Internet released a study that finds 25 percent of cell phone owners in a marriage or partnership have felt their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together. That number jumps to 42 percent when the couple is 18-29 years old.

Another Pew Internet study finds:

  • 67 percent of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls -- even when they don't notice their phone ringing or vibrating.
  • 44 percent of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn't miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.
  • 29 percent of cell owners describe their cell phone as "something they can't imagine living without."

Kids, it turns out, learn most of their digital behavior from their adult role models (ouch). Today's 8- to 18-year-old, on average, spends more time engaged with media than they spend doing anything else besides sleeping, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Research is just beginning to show that excessive media exposure is having long-term effects, especially on kids. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coauthor of the book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, finds that young brains are changing in response to all this screen time. "We have a generation of digital natives with very strong techno-skills and very strong neuro pathways for multitasking and experiencing partial continuous attention and other wonderful adaptive skills," Small says. "But they're not developing the face-to-face human contact skills."

Face-to-face contact is a central theme in Dr. Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. In an interview for the New York Times, Turkle explains our need for real physical contact like this:

Human relationships are rich; they are messy and demanding ... Email, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places ... But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

There is growing movement underway that encourages couples, families, and virtually anyone who has physical loved ones in their lives, to spend Valentine's night engaged in real, face-to-face conversation. One of these is the Pledge to Unplug campaign, launched by author David Ryan Polgar. He is advocating for a night where we all pledge to unplug in order give one another full, undivided, non-digitally-distracted attention. "Because," according to Polgar, "What's better than a dozen roses and a fancy dinner? Giving your loved one your full attention." His Pledge to Unplug page encourages people to share their plans and suggestions on how to survive the night without digital distraction.

Sounds tough, but I'm willing to give it a try.

I figure I can tweet about it in the morning.