By 2016, 77 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone. Although they’re just small rectangular objects in our pockets, smartphones are leading to significant shifts in how we interact with the world.
Headlines tell us that “smartphones have destroyed a generation” and “social media is ripping apart society.” But what does the research say?
Indeed, young people who use electronic devices more tend to experience greater depression and worse mood. And smartphones seem to be particularly problematic for relationships, leading to social interactions that are lower-quality and less empathic. But there are a wide range of ways you can use your smartphone—from taking photos with your friends to envious Facebook stalking—and only some of them are detrimental.
So, how do you keep your smartphone from harming your connection to others? These research-backed strategies can help protect your relationships in a variety of social situations.
1. Don’t replace face-to-face interactions with electronic interactions
The amount of time we spend using electronic communication has increased considerably since the release of the smartphone. Because we only have a limited amount of time each day, smartphone use can lead us to spend less time with others, which, over time, can negatively impact our lives.
Why? As ample research shows, building strong social relationships is one of the best things we can do for our mental and physical health, and it may be easier for us to build these relationships in person. Engaging in face-to-face social interactions tends to improve our mood and reduce depression. Other activities that involve other people—such as attending religious services or engaging in exercise or sports—also have positive effects on our mental health. Without these experiences, our mental health suffers.
The convenience of the smartphone has made it easier to pass up meaningful social interactions. Although only 23 percent of people say they occasionally use their phone to avoid interacting with others, the rest of us may just opt for what’s easy. We may peruse our friends’ Facebook pages instead of asking them how they’re doing. We may opt to watch Netflix instead of going to the theater with friends. For optimal mental health, though, it seems we should choose face-to-face interactions whenever possible. (Not sure how to do this? Here’s some tips for how to break up with your phone.)
2. Don’t use your phone when you’re with other people
To build those strong, in-person relationships, we also have to be mindful of how we use our phones around others.
If you’re with someone and they start using their smartphone, the social interaction tends to be lower-quality. As you’ve probably experienced, it can break the connection, stall a conversation, and make you feel unheard. Most people believe that it’s not OK to use smartphones during social events, and 82 percent believe that smartphone use at social gatherings actually hurts conversations, at least occasionally.
Nevertheless, we continue to use our smartphones. In one study, 89 percent of smartphone users said that they used their phone during the most recent social gathering. And most people believe that their own smartphone use doesn’t take much, if any, of their attention away from the group.
To add insult to injury, when we use our smartphones during social interactions, we also diminish our own experience. One study suggested that people who use their smartphone while dining out with friends experience less interest and enjoyment and more boredom than people who don’t. A similar phenomenon was observed in other types of social interactions.
We seem to be blind to the fact that using our phones around others can negatively impact our lives, even though we are perfectly aware of the damage when other people do it.
So when you’re tempted to pull out your phone at a social event, try to remember how it feels when someone else does.
3. Keep your phone out of sight during meaningful conversations
Even refraining from using your phone might not be enough in certain situations. Research suggests that smartphones can be highly distracting, with more than half of Americans saying that smartphones have made it harder to give others their undivided attention. Some research further shows that just having a smartphone present on a table—not even in use—while engaging in a meaningful conversation can reduce the empathy, trust, and relationship quality between the people.
Imagine how it feels when you’re pouring your heart out to someone and they don’t really understand you or respond to you—maybe they even glance at their phone from time to time. The ability to be present and listen attentively is key to building trust with others. And if we can’t do that, we risk the health of our relationships—something to remember the next time you’re having an important conversation.