Apple and Google recently announced features in their forthcoming mobile operating systems designed to “reduce interruptions and manage screen time.” Android and iOS users alike will soon be able to guard their sleep against digital temptations, easily activate “Do Not Disturb” mode when needed, and get prompted to stop when they have used their favorite apps beyond a personally chosen time limit.
As a psychological scientist who has been studying the effects of mobile technology on well-being for the past five years, I can only welcome these new tools. Indeed, a great deal of research has documented how smartphones might be harming people’s sleep quality or distracting them from nondigital activities. In my own experimental research, my collaborators and I have found consistent evidence that smartphones can also distract users from the family and friends right in front of them, such as when sharing a meal or spending time with their children.
The limitations of choice
The crux of the matter is that people, as it turns out, fail to judge what economists call “opportunity costs” – the value of what someone gives up when they make a choice to do one thing and not another.
For example, in a series of studies I conducted with Jason Proulx and Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, we found that people neglect a key side effect of relying on their phones for information: They miss out on chances to boost their sense of social connectedness. Using a mobile map app, for example, obviates the need to rely on other people, removing the opportunity to experience the kindness of a stranger who helpfully provides directions to a store or movie theater.
Just put the phone down
It is easy to see how completely forgoing social interaction for technological convenience can hurt someone’s social well-being. But most people use their phones precisely to socialise – often while simultaneously socialising with others in person. Perhaps it’s having a drink with a co-worker while also Snapchatting with a friend, texting with a partner, or even setting up a new date through Tinder or Grindr. One may think that socialising with more people simultaneously is better.
But my collaborator, Samantha Heintzelman, and I recently found that combining digital and face-to-face socialising is not as enjoyable as putting down the phone and just spending time together.
In a study at the University of Virginia, we tracked the social behavior and well-being of 174 millennials over the course of a week. At five random times each day, we sent each person a one-minute survey to complete on their mobile phone. We asked what they had been doing in the previous 15 minutes, including whether they were socialising in person or digitally (such as by texting or using social media). We also asked how close or distant they were feeling to other people, and how good or bad they were feeling overall.
We weren’t particularly surprised to find that people felt better and more connected during times when they only socialised face-to-face, as compared with when they weren’t socialising at all.
We did find, however, that when socialising face-to-face only, people felt happier and more connected to others than when they were socialising only through their phones. This is notable because the people in our study were the generation of so-called “digital natives,” who had been using smartphones, tablets and computers to interact since very young ages. Even for them, the benefits gleaned from good old face-to-face talking exceeded the well-being of digitally mediated communication.
Most critically, people felt worse and less connected when they mixed face-to-face with digital socialising, compared to when they solely socialised in person. Our results suggest that digital socialising doesn’t add to, but in fact subtracts from, the psychological benefits of nondigital socialising.