Smartphone use during meals affects social interaction, study finds

One of the central conclusions researchers reached in this study is that engaging in positive social interactions is critical for human well-being. However, the technological revolution that humanity is currently undergoing has upended this system of interaction.

The University of British Columbia researchers conducted their study in two parts.

The first part of the study recruited over 300 people to each  share a meal at a restaurant with family and friends.

Of these 300 people, participants were randomly chosen to either keep their phones on the table during the meal or put their phones away.

During this part of the study, participants were invited to complete a “study investigating people's experience dining out with friends.” Groups of three to five friends or family members participated in the study at a local café. Participants under the phone condition were told that they would be asked to answer a survey question after ordering their food, and that the resident assistant would text them this question.

To ensure that they received the survey, the participants were told to set their phone on the table with the ringer or vibration mode on.

Under the phoneless condition, participants were also told that they would answer a survey question, but this question would be handed to them on paper.

These participants were then instructed to turn their phones on silent and place them in a container on the table.

As mentioned in the study, “To support our cover story, we asked participants to rate how they were feeling that day on a scale from 0 to 100 via text (phone condition) or paper (phoneless condition).” Participants then ate their meal together without further interruption by the experimenter.

When phones were present, participants felt more distracted, which reduced how much they enjoyed spending time with friends and family. The phone condition group scored about half a point less on a seven-point scale, the researchers found.

In the second study, people were surveyed five times a day for one week. They were asked to report how they felt and what they had done over the past 15 minutes.

The researchers saw the same pattern, with participants reporting that they enjoyed their in-person social interactions less if they had been using their phones.

These findings are not surprising. "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 Ph.D. 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."

Baruch College students expressed similar sentiments.

Hugh Shioski, a freshman with an undecided major, noted that “Social interaction entails certain ‘expectations’ depending on the medium in which the communication and interaction takes place. When I send a text, my expectations are mostly reduced to if the person responds or not. When I meet someone in person, I expect a more sincere and complex interaction (accentuated by facial and hand gestures, vocal pitch use, etc.). Going to meet someone in person and substituting the sincere interaction that ought to take place with a different medium of communication (like texting) sets up a disappointing scenario where you expect something that you eliminate the possibility of doing by having your eyes glued to a screen rather than the person in front of you.”

Smartphones can improve communication with video chat, texting, calls and social media apps and increase the connectedness of the world.

This is not applicable to every situation, as this study demonstrates. Technology negatively affects one’s dinner experience and hinders genuine in-person social interactions.