Put the phone away to focus on friendship

“So I told him I could never accept … oh, okay, you got a text … you’re back. Yes, anyway, I had been so frustrated with the way … a work email? Yes, I understand. Right, in any case, he left in a huff and … oh, a phone call. Sure, no problem.” Ever feel like you are playing second fiddle to a mobile device? Recent research shows you are not alone, and our ability to connect with one another suffers for it.

No one likes it, but everybody is doing it

Students at Elon University almost universally shelled out a big thumbs down for family members and friends that checked their screens while spending time with them. Yet when researchers quietly observed Elon students’ behavior, they found 63 percent of students in groups around campus and 73 percent of students seated in groups at the dining hall chose technology use over talking to the people they were hanging with. (1)

The smartphone alert has become somewhat Pavlovian — we hear the bell, we salivate; or in this case, we hear the alert, we swipe. Yet researchers have piled up mounds of evidence that connecting so voraciously with the world at large degrades our ability to connect with those right in front of us.

Face time, the old-fashioned way

All this constant phone time might keep us from identifying how others are feeling. UCLA researchers asked sixth graders to identify emotions in a group of photos. Half of the children were then shipped off to nature camp, where phones and other electronic devices were not permitted; the other group continued its normal use of technology. At the end of the week, the phone-less sixth graders were much better at distinguishing emotions than those with free reign of technology. (2)

The mysterious random phone effect

A random phone placed in a conversation booth was shown to squash relationship connection and empathy. You read that right — a random phone out of nowhere wielded some shocking relationship-hampering powers.

Researchers at the University of Essex placed two strangers in a booth without their own cell phones and gave them a topic of conversation. Half the booths had an unknown cell phone on a desk with a book; the other half had a pocket notebook instead of the cell phone. If the phone was in their booth, participants rated both relationship quality and sensitivity of their partner lower.

Digging deeper, researchers decided to see if that random phone would throw a wrench in relationship-building for more meaningful conversations —  communication that would demand more connection and empathy. With no phone, this was clearly the case: relationship quality scores were higher for the more meaningful conversation. In the room with a phone, the opposite was true. The more meaningful the conversation, the poorer the relationship quality was rated.

Researchers suggested that just the presence of the phone reminded participants of the wider social connections available to them and kept them from connecting properly with their partner. (3)

Put the phone away

If a random phone belonging to no one can inhibit connectedness, how does your own phone inhibit your ability to connect to others? Start today and put your phone away for personal conversations. Keeping it on the table and trying to ignore may not work; instead place your phone well out of reach, like in your bag under the chair, or even left in your car. Or try the cellphone “tower” trick when you eat at a restaurant — the first to touch the tower to answer an alert picks up the check!


“Just look me in the eye already” — the importance of eye contact

Bosses are not crazy about phone use during meetings

How your cell phone impacts relationships

  1. Wolpert S. In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions? UCLA Newsroom online. Aug 21, 2014. Accessed Feb 3, 2017.
  2. Drago E. The effect of technology on face-to-face communication. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. 2015;6(1):13-19.
  3. Przybylski AK and Weinstein N. Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2012;30(3):237-246.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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