When you spend time with your romantic partner, are you actually making your relationship better? Or are you just near each other, perhaps talking, but not really connecting to the degree that you think you could?
Recent research identifies a new way in which closeness and connection is potentially inhibited by an advancement that is supposed to help people stay connected: our phones. This seems odd, at first, because phone technology is the very means by which we stay connected. We use our phones to send images and messages to those we care about, we share moments with friends who are across town or a plane flight away, we make plans to see each other in person. The benefits are apparent, but the costs are often unnoticed.
Sure, it makes sense that constantly checking your phone might not help your relationship, but what if you’re not actively checking your phone. In other words, it’s just sitting there on the table at a restaurant or a coffee shop, near your keys on the bar when you’re out, or in a cup-holder at the movies, a game, or in your car. Is that a problem?
It could be. Recent research suggest that the mere presence of a phone is a problem for connection and intimacy (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2012). In this research, researchers asked pairs of participants to talk either casually or about a meaningful event, and subsequently measured the participants feelings of closeness and relationship quality (Study 1) and feelings of trust and empathy (Study 2). Half of the participants engaged in these conversations with a phone present (i.e., on the table but at no time accessed) while the other half did not have a phone present.
Results showed that the mere presence of a phone was enough to interfere with interpersonal connection. Participants reported:
- less closeness
- lower relationship quality
- lower feelings of trust
- lower partner empathy
… when they were in the phone-present versus phone-absent condition. These effects were especially pronounced when they were asked to talk about a meaningful event in their lives.
Most interestingly, participants were not aware that their phones were having this effect on their ability to connect with their conversation partners. So, all of this is taking place outside of conscious awareness: participants had no idea their phones were having this effect on their relationship.
What about outside of the laboratory? A more recent field study corroborates this effect (Dwyer, Kushlev, & Dunn, 2018). This time, participants were recruited to share a meal together at a restaurant, which is an activity that has the potential to allow for engaging social interaction. The researchers manipulated whether or not a phone was present on the table (ostensibly to await for the survey texted to them) or absent (participants were instructed to silence their phones and put them away). After their meal, participants completed a set of survey questions assessing their experience.
Results suggested that people with their phones out reported more boredom and less enjoyment than those with their phones away, and how distracted they were because of their phones in part explained these differences. In a second study, participants completed surveys at various time points over a week and indicated what they had been doing in the last 15 minutes and how they felt. How distracted participants felt when using their phones accounted for their reports of less enjoyment, more boredom, and less connection (Dwyer, Kushlev, & Dunn, 2018).
What can you do to help your relationship? These studies suggest that the mere presence of phones may have a detrimental effect on interpersonal connection, and that we’re not necessarily aware of this effect. Happily, there’s a simple solution: put your phones away, out of sight, and you will set yourself up for more meaningful interpersonal connections.