Getty Images / WIRED
We are all doing our best to get through a third national lockdown, which means more time indoors and, for the vast majority of us, even more time looking at screens. This is no bad thing in itself, as our devices allow us to stay in real-time contact with the people we cannot currently see in person due to the necessary travel and social distancing restrictions.
But what about the partners, family and flatmates we’re spending these locked down months with? Do we run the risk of adding ‘distance’ between ourselves and the people we love and live with whilst we tend to our virtual connections?
The time we spend looking at screens (smartphones in particular) instead of interacting with the people around us has a fairly well established name: phubbing (or phone snubbing). Sometimes this feels obviously rude. But most of the time you probably don’t even notice it’s happening because it’s become so commonplace for many of us.
But my question is: because our phones are everywhere now, do we need to change anything? Is phubbing simply a part of lockdown life, just like Zoom meetings and abandoned bread recipes? Maybe. What’s important here is that research shows phones can affect how we feel about someone we’re with purely by being placed in the same room as we are.
Why you need to start putting your phone away more
Researchers who conducted a 2012 study assigned 74 participants into one of two groups. The first group had to split up into pairs and sit with nothing but a notebook in front of them. The second group did the same, but there was a phone resting on a book just out of their direct view. The researchers then asked all of the pairs to spend ten minutes talking about something interesting that had happened to them over the past month. They then measured a bunch of factors to do with how well they felt they had connected with their partner, like their relationship quality and their emotional sensitivity.
Results showed the mere presence of a smartphone in the second group undermined how close the participants felt to each other, as well as the level of connection they reported experiencing and how they judged the quality of the conversation. In the measurement scale they reported lower relationship quality after the interaction that those in the no-phone group, as well as less closeness with their partners.
Interestingly, the participants didn’t realise this was happening at the time – that the phone was responsible for sucking all the connection out of the room. The researchers proposed a couple of theories about why this might be. One suggested that our phones prime us to think about wider social networks, including different events and people. Therefore, this draws our attention away from the person in front of us.
In a similar study in 2017, 300 participants were asked to share a meal at a restaurant with friends and family. One cohort was told to keep their phones on the table; others had to put them away. When phones were out on the table, people reported feeling more distracted. This, in turn, reduced how much they said they enjoyed the time they spent with their loved ones.
The fact that our phones have the power to weaken closeness and conversation quality and boost distraction when they’re not doing anything is surprising. But it does mean we already know what to do to prevent our devices from hijacking our experiences: if we can, let’s put our phones away more often.
You might think putting your phone on the table in front of you occasionally when you see a friend for a coffee isn’t cause for concern. But the more pressing implication here is that you could influence the closeness you feel to the most important people in your life – including your children – and how close they feel to you.
Researchers conducted two different studies in 2018 to discover how connected parents feel to their kids when the adults spend time on their phones. The first took place in a science museum in which some parents were told to use their phone more than they usually would and others were told to use their phone less than normal.
The second was a more thorough ‘week in the life’ diary-style study, which aimed to chart how phone use would affect how connected the parents felt to their kids over the course of six days. Both studies showed that the participants felt distracted when using their phones, which then meant they reported feeling less connected to their children in a number of situations because their attention was being drawn somewhere else – to their screens.
So, let’s be clear here: it’s not that phones have a connection-crushing superpower. Instead, our devices are forcing us to multitask – but this time between what we do with our screens and what we do with people around us.
What ‘good’ screen time looks like
As you might expect, there are fewer of these adverse effects when there’s no opportunity for connection. For example, if parents are with their children but there isn’t a chance to interact with them – the research gives the example of a parent watching their child at sports practice while they’re sitting alone. In that situation looking at their phone probably wouldn’t have the same effect. So we needn’t worry all the time.
I know what you’re thinking. This seems to fly in the face of a lot of literature and research about not letting phones distract us. But there’s nuance, which we need to become attuned to. If being on your phone doesn’t distract you from an opportunity to connect, that’s okay. My concern with that is: will we miss out on an opportunity to connect because we’ve been scrolling through TikTok non-stop for an hour?
Interestingly, there are exceptions. In the same study, researchers found that the negative effects of phone use were reversed when parents used their phones to access apps or information that were relevant to what their children saw at the museum. Using the phone as a tool to find out more about their environment ended up boosting feelings of connection and enhanced everyone’s experience.
This shows the value of being mindful that if we use our devices around others it can and should be to enhance our experiences – not distract from them. You could do all kinds of things, like take a photo or find out more information about what’s going on around you using an augmented reality app.
This is positive for setting guidelines about what is and isn’t acceptable when you and the people you live with want to connect, and suggests a more flexible approach is required instead of imposing bans or setting strict rules. This provides a useful, simple question to ask yourself when you get your phone out around others: is this going to make what’s happening better or impose a barrier?
Among other things, research suggests that the time we spend with tech can measurably reduce stress – something many of us would welcome right now. The delivery of these benefits can vary a lot from person to person, so it’s important to recognise our own and recognise that other people’s will be different. For example, there’s evidence to suggest video games can relieve stress and help some people to relax. What’s more, one study suggested that playing video games can help you to transform negative feelings into more positive ones.
Researchers divided participants into three groups to look at the effects of break-time activities during a regular day at work. The first group spent their break in silent rest and later reported that they felt less engaged with their work and more worried in general. The second group participated in a guided relaxation activity and later reported feeling fewer negative feelings and less distress. The third group spent the time playing video games and later reported feeling better than before their break, which continued for the rest of the day.
Knowledge of gaming’s emotional rewards isn’t exactly news – numerous studies have linked time spent playing games to a measurable uptick in well-being. But it is something well worth reminding ourselves of as we face the prospect of continued time in lockdown this year.
It should also be taken into consideration when it comes to our expectations of others. You might feel you’re being ‘phubbed’ by a partner, but screen time doesn’t have to benefit everyone in our households for it to be worthwhile. The time your partner spends playing a game on their phone could be precisely the mood leveller they need in order to be there for you in other ways.
Recharge your relationships
Individual behaviours aside, what we might really need here is a deliberate shift in mindset about what the time we spend connecting with loved ones looks like.
One study, which consisted of a series of in-depth interviews with 18 parents and their children, aimed to explore the tension between parents, teens and their devices. The researchers found that the romanticised ideals some of the interviewees had about what family time should look like aren’t always true to life.
There’s a perception that family time is when parents and children need to put all tech away and be constantly engaged with each other, talking and smiling, without screens – but that’s not always the case or the most conducive to a genuinely happy and relaxed family life. Holding on to this ideal means you’re likely to be disappointed.
To combat this, the researchers call for ‘a more nuanced interpretation of family time’. I’m not saying let people in your life stamp all over your boundaries, but there’s a balance to be found here. It might be worth adjusting your expectations, which could relieve the pressure for everyone.
For this to be effective, though, these expectations need to be shared. The same study found that everyone in the family considered using devices acceptable when they were together as long as everyone’s attention was also split with a device or another activity.
It’s not hard to see why this is important to everyone in the family. I know of parents who tell their kids that they can’t use their phones and then end up setting a bad example by using theirs. It makes more sense that the expectations, family time and screen time are all mutual. We can all find our happy mediums by figuring out the most satisfying use of our own tech time, and other people’s, and making sure to continue to show up for each other.
More great stories from WIRED
🐧 The mystery of the world’s loneliest penguins
🎲 Forget Monopoly. These are the best board games for adults and families
💻 Take control and stop yourself getting hacked in 2021
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn