Smartphones and dinners don’t mix, researchers say.

Dining table.

Image credits Helena Lopes.

Hello, girlfriends past. I know we have debated this during the times we enjoyed together. I also know that we decided, alas, that I found myself on the wrong side of the Snapchat barricade at the time. Yet I come bearing dire news: pulling out a smartphone at dinner might help you stay connected (or depressed), but according to new research from the University of British Columbia, it will make your face-to-face interactions less enjoyable.


“As useful as smartphones can be, our findings confirm what many of us likely already suspected,” said Ryan Dwyer, the study’s lead author and PhD student in the department of psychology. “When we use our phones while we are spending time with people we care about — apart from offending them — we enjoy the experience less than we would if we put our devices away.”

For the study, the team asked some 300 people to go to dinner with friends or family at a restaurant, with a caveat: some participants were randomly assigned to use their devices while out, others to stow their devices away. Afterwards, the team asked them several questions, including how much they enjoyed their time. The questions were designed in such a way as to hide the study’s focus on smartphones.

Online, but disconnected

The participants’ answers suggest that when phones were present, they felt more distracted, which reduced their enjoyment of the dinner by about half a point on a seven-point scale. They also reported feeling slightly more bored during the meal when the devices were present — a find which the researchers call surprising.


“We had predicted that people would be less bored when they had access to their smartphones, because they could entertain themselves if there was a lull in the conversation,” said Dwyer.

Next, the team wanted to see if the results hold true in other settings — so they expanded their study to day-to-day life. For this second step, they recruited more than 100 participants and sent a survey to their smartphones five times a day for a whole week. The questionnaire asked about their mood and what activities they’ve engaged during the past 15 minutes.

The team says the same pattern emerged: participants reported enjoying their in-person social interactions less if they had been using their phones. Elizabeth Dunn, the senior author of the study and professor in the department of psychology, said the findings expand on the ongoing debate around the effects of smartphones on public health.

“An important finding of happiness research is that face-to-face interactions are incredibly important for our day-to-day wellbeing. This study tells us that, if you really need your phone, it’s not going to kill you to use it,” she said, adding:

“But there is a real and detectable benefit from putting your phone away when you’re spending time with friends and family.”

I know that disconnecting isn’t only daunting in this day and age, it’s rapidly becoming impossible. But I also feel that we should all take that half hour a day to enjoy those close to us, in the flesh, without a bunch of pixels mediating our interaction — it’s those times that we’ll remember later on, not the thumbs up we sent in the group chat. Social media will still be there to shower you in emojis when you return.

The paper “Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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