The smartphone has become so ubiquitous at mealtimes that it might as well have its own seat at the dinner table. But according to new research led by The University of British Columbia, that practice is taking a serious toll. Our “delightful” phones are actually boring us, creating feelings of tension and making us less happy than when we put them down and enjoy the company of family and friends.
The study invited 304 participants to have a meal at a cafe, in groups of three to five. These people were family and friends, rather than strangers. No one knew what was being tested, but half of the groups were told to keep their phones on the table, because they’d be texted questions during the meal. The other half was instructed to silence their phones and put them away. The people who dined with their phones out enjoyed their meal less than those who put them away. They reported being more distracted, more tense, and more bored.
University studies, like this one, are often criticized for being skewed by local demographics since college students make up the vast majority of readily available subjects. In this case, however, researchers were surprised to find that even the most tech-fluent youngsters, actually raised on smartphones, were negatively impacted by the phones’ presence.
“This generation has grown up with mobile technology, and some have raised the possibility that young people might, therefore, be relatively adept at multi-tasking in real-world contexts,” the researchers write. “This idea is particularly compelling in the context of extended social interactions, such as sharing a meal with friends, given that natural lulls in conversation might afford the ability to attend to one’s phone without any detectable cost. Yet, our findings suggest that even the moderate levels of phone use we observed are sufficient to create feelings of distraction that undermine the emotional rewards of social interaction.”
To confirm their own findings, researchers completed a follow-up study by surveying 100 participants across their everyday lives, by checking in five times a day over the course of a week. When subjects received a text message, they had to say what they’d been up to for the last 15 minutes, how much they’d been on their phones over that time, and rate the experience over several metrics. This follow-up study captured people doing everything and anything, rather than just eating meals. Yet again, phones proved to not just be distracting during face-to-face interactions. They also made people feel less enjoyment, less social connection, and more bored.
The researchers do caution that while these increased measurements of boredom and tension were meaningful, they were relatively small–so small that they made sure to double check them by performing two studies. It would be easy to dismiss the findings as trivial–but they urge that sweeping these findings under a rug, just because they weren’t immediately catastrophic to our daily happiness, would be a mistake.
“. . . Phones may have minimal negative effects on individual social interactions; however, these small effects are likely consequential over time. [Some scientists] argue that small, frequent interruptions from phones can compound into relationship conflict and lower life satisfaction,” they write. “Our study provides a window into one underlying process through which phone use may chip away at life satisfaction: phones may undermine the enjoyment derived from face-to-face social interactions.”
If nothing else, the research suggests that there really is some benefit to the many approaches we’ve taken to limiting our own phone use, from turning the screens grey to making family pacts to put them away during mealtime to actually locking them up during outings. And perhaps even more importantly, it proves that companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook really should be reassessing the role they play in our lives.