Is our ability to be constantly connected online keeping us from getting the most out of our real-world activities?
A lot of us are guilty of being distracted by our smartphones while in the presence of other people, whether at home, concerts, restaurants, and beyond.
But are digital devices taking us out of the moment?
A recent study that looked at the effects phones have on the dining experience suggests so.
“People enjoy spending time eating dinner with their friends and family significantly less when they have their phones out and available compared to when everyone’s phones are away,” Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the study, told Healthline. “That seems to be largely explained by the degree of distraction the phones create.”
For the study, Dunn and her colleagues recruited more than 300 adults and university students in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Some participants were asked to keep their phones on the table with the ringer or vibration on. Others were told to put their phones on silent and set them inside a container on the table during the meal.
“It was really important to us to prevent people from recognizing that this had anything to do with technology. We were really just capturing the pure difference that phones make without influencing people’s notions about what kind of difference it makes,” Dunn said.
After participants finished eating, they filled out a questionnaire related to their feelings of social connectedness, enjoyment, distraction, and boredom.
They were asked to rate their agreement on a scale of 1 to 7 with several statements, including “I enjoyed this experience very much” and “I was easily distracted.”
For those who had their phones out, they were also asked how much they used them and what they did on their phones during the meal.
The researchers found those who had their phones out reported feeling more distracted and enjoyed the experience less. The data showed about a half a point difference.
“There is speculation in the media that phones destroy conversations, but this is the first clear experimental evidence demonstrating and quantifying how much of a difference the presence of phones can make for our enjoyment of social interactions,” Dunn said.
“The effect is real and detectable, but not massive,” she continued. “Phones are not destroying the world, but they are making a dent. This explains why people continue to use them while with other people.”
More than an iGen problem
The generation thought to be most affected by technology is referred to as iGen. These are people born between 1995 and 2012, says Jean Twenge, PhD, professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
Twenge wrote about the topic in her book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”
“In the mid-1990s, there were sudden shifts in how people spent their time and in the way people said they were feeling,” Twenge told Healthline.
On top of her own research, Twenge also looked at data sets of large national surveys of teens and young adults over several decades.
“A lot of my book is based on a survey of about 11 million people who had responded at one point or another since the 1960s. The survey looked at young people of different generations, and I noticed a pretty sudden change with those born in the early 1990s compared to those born in the late 1990s,” she said.
Those who are a part of iGen are the first to spend their entire adolescence with smartphones.
“They take this technology for granted and are more likely to use social media than older people. My own research shows that because teenagers today spend more time online and on social media, they spend less time with their friends face-to-face, whether that’s just hanging out or going to parties or the mall. All these things that teens have historically done to hang out with each other, iGen teens do less of,” Twenge said.
Why is less in-person interaction bad? Twenge says decades of research shows people who spend time with others face-to-face and maintain relationships have more social support from other people, are happier, less lonely, and less likely to have depression.
Additionally, research found communicating with people electronically doesn’t show these benefits.
“Many studies show that it’s actually a negative relationship with happiness and a positive one with depression. Meaning people who interact with people face-to-face tend to be happier and less depressed, and people who interact on social media and online are more likely to be unhappy and more likely to be depressed,” Twenge said.
However, she points out the positive effect of in-person social interactions is a stronger one than the detrimental effect of electronic communication.
“It all goes together,” Twenge said. “If you are spending more time communicating electronically and less time face-to-face, then the root cause is more likely the rise in digital media use.”
This isn’t only the case for the iGen generation, but for all ages, notes Twenge.
“There are some studies that suggest that adults are using these technologies almost as much as teens are, so this is definitely an issue that extends to people of all ages,” she said.
Ali Katz, a 42-year-old mother of two boys who are 11 and 13 years old, can attest. As a meditation teacher, author, and speaker in Houston, Texas, Katz always strives to be mindful.
However, she noticed she was getting more and more distracted by her cell phone.
“It started really bothering me when on a few occasions my kids were talking to me while I was on my phone, and they’d say, ‘Mom are you listening?’ It’d take me back, because I wasn’t listening or as present as I knew I could be,” Katz told Healthline.
“I also started noticing that I was always thinking in terms of posts. So when I was with my family or friends, instead of just being present, I was wondering if what we were doing would be good to capture for a social media post,” she said.
Katz made a conscious effort to cut back on her phone use. She started by putting her phone on Do Not Disturb for a few minutes a day during the week and 30 minutes a day on the weekend. Then she went to 30 minutes a day during the week and an hour a day on the weekend. Eventually, she tried the entire afternoon on the weekends.
For the past few months, she says she only uses her phone for texting and calling and refrains from social media the entire weekend. She plans to do this inevitably.
“It feels so good to step away from my phone. I love social media and using my phone, but I love myself more when I have freedom from it, because I am more present and connected to people in my life,” Katz said.
“Instead of scrolling through my phone mindlessly, now my weekends are dedicated to spending quality time with my family, playing with my dogs, or taking an extra walk and rejuvenating from the week,” she added.
Katz admits she’s excited to get back on social media on Mondays, but just as excited on Friday nights to be free of it for a couple days. During the week, she also jumps off social media by 9:30 p.m. and leaves her phone outside of her bedroom.
“I’m not against social media. I love it. It’s how I connect with my readership, clients, and how I get inspired from other people,” Katz said. “It’s all fun and I don’t think it’s bad, but I think we need to have boundaries.”
She believes the boundaries she’s set for herself are also a good example for her tween sons.
“Our kids pay so much more attention to what we do than what we say, so I can’t tell them to get off their phones if I’m always on mine. I want to set an example for them so they know how to have mindful use of their phones,” she said.
Robert Weiss, a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert and CEO of Seeking Integrity, respects notions like Katz’s. But he says kids need to understand there are things adults get to do that they don’t.
“If you’re a busy mom and need to check your phone while dropping your kid off at school or an activity, it’s OK. If you need to be on your devices at home to catch up on work at night, that’s OK, too. Kids need to understand that adults may have different parameters than they do when it comes to technology,” Weiss told Healthline.
He also notes that since technology is an inevitable part of the world, adults need to think about digital use in the way older adults of decades past thought about new developments of their time, such as television and rock ’n’ roll.
“This is part of the generation, and it is judgmental to say that kids these days are wrong in using technology,” Weiss said.
“Technology is not a bad thing, and there is truth in the argument that some aspects of technology [like social media, video games, and apps] actually are social activities, even if kids aren’t in the same room while they engage in them,” he noted.
How to cut back
Twenge says the key to cutting back on digital use is to set limits, like Katz did.
“I think a lot of people are struggling with the amount that they use, and there’s different techniques for dialing back with habits, whether that’s food or gambling or digital use. Some people go cold turkey and others use distraction and replace it with another activity. People have to try to find what works for them best,” Twenge said.
However, she adds research points to healthy digital use is two hours per day or less — with those two hours occurring when you’re not spending time with other people.
Twenge also suggests setting digital devices down about a half hour or hour before bedtime and leaving the phone outside of your bedroom.
If technology is affecting intimacy within in your relationship, Weiss suggests trying the following:
- Set boundaries about using tech, like at the dinner table, before bed, when in bed, and before breakfast.
- Set aside time to be together and have face-to-face conversations without video games, TV, phones, laptops, and other devices.
- If you’re into gaming, game together. Consider a game that gets you out and about together, such as Pokemon Go.
- If your partner has their face buried in their phone, send them a text (or a sext) or use FaceTime (or similar) to get their attention.
For those who fear technology is bound to kill personal interactions, Weiss says the solution may actually be more technology.
“As technology becomes more real, so does interpersonal interaction via technology. In the same way that people can lose touch with loved ones by burying themselves in video games, they can reconnect with loved ones via webcams, mutual [virtual reality] gaming/intimacy, [virtual reality] interactions, etc.,” he said.