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  • Smartphones may make our lives easier in many ways, but they also undermine the quality and meaningfulness of time spent with loved ones.  Tweet This
  • A growing body of survey and experimental research indicates that our online lives are harming our real lives, from our relationships to our mental and emotional well-being. Tweet This

The Internet is an incredible technological advancement that has allowed people to access information, products, and services, connect with others, and mobilize social causes in ways not possible in the past. And now with over 90% of Americans under the age of 50 and the majority of people in many nations around the world owning smartphones, we have this amazing power right in our pockets. Yet, there are reasons to believe this technology comes with serious social and psychological costs. While some dismiss concerns about our computer-mediated lives as little more than “kids these days” complaints, the evidence that these concerns are warranted is growing.

Psychologists have linked poor social and psychological well-being among young people to time spent in front of screens at the expense of time spent engaged in other activities that typically involve face-to-face social interaction. Though some have challenged the idea that screen time is harmful by pointing to the correlational nature of much of the data, new experimental studies are providing additional evidence that there are reasons for concern. 

For example, in a field experiment, researchers found that having cellphones present during a meal with family or friends decreased enjoyment of that social experience. Another experiment that involved pairs of college students waiting together with or without their cellphones found that those who were phoneless were far more likely to smile at and interact with one another than those with cellphones. And one study found that having college students severely limit their daily social media use over a three-week period decreased both loneliness and depression. In short, a growing body of experimental research is providing empirical evidence that cellphones distract us from fully experiencing the real world.

But are these issues really that big of a deal? After all, most people aren’t on their phones all the time, right? 

Surveys indicate that young people are increasingly devoted to having their social lives mediated by technology. For example, surveys conducted by Common Sense Media show that between 2012 and 2016, the leading choice for how teenagers prefer to interact with their friends changed from face-to-face interaction to texting. The majority of teens also reported that social media often distracts them when they should be paying attention to people in real life. Pew Research Center further reports that about 3 in 10 adults, ages 18 to 49, indicate being online all the time. More and more, humans are growing up in a world that privileges technology-mediated living over face-to-face interaction.

We tend to think about individual users when discussing the potential harm caused by smartphones; however, research is beginning to reveal how this technology is bad for family life. For example, in one recent experiment published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, psychologists Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn recruited parents at a science museum with their children and randomly assigned them to high or low cellphone use conditions. Parents in the high-use condition were instructed to spend as much time as they safely could on their phones while at the museum, and parents in the low-use condition were instructed to refrain from using their phones as much as possible. Prior to leaving the museum, parents completed questionnaires assessing their subjective experience of spending time with their children at the museum.  

The researchers found that parents in the high-use condition, compared to those in the low-use condition, reported feeling less attentive and less socially connected, and reported lower meaning in life while with their children at the museum. In a follow-up diary-based study focused on parent and child interactions at home, the researchers found additional evidence that when phones distracted parents, they felt less socially connected to their children. 

Regarding smartphones and family life specifically, a Pew survey found that around half of teenagers say their parents are distracted by their phones when they are trying to talk to them, and over 70% of parents report that their teenagers are distracted when they are trying to have a conversation with them. 

Smartphones may be a wonderful technological achievement that make our lives easier in many ways, but they also undermine the quality and meaningfulness of time spent with loved ones, including our children, and make even more casual social encounters less pleasant and less likely. 

Take for instance a new YouGov survey that finds that 30% of Millennials report always or often feeling lonely, and 22% report that they have no friends. Furthermore, Pew reports that over 70% of young adults believe that people just look out for themselves most of the time and that most people would try to take advantage of you if they had the chance; 60% believe most people can’t be trusted. Older generations, particularly those over the age of 65, are far less inclined to have such a pessimistic view of their fellow Americans. 

There are many other worrying trends related to our psychological and social health, such as rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Such trends undoubtedly have multiple causes, including the rise of individualism. As I discussed in an article for the New York Times, there are many reasons to believe that social and cultural changes that are at least partially rooted in individualism are contributing to a crisis of meaning in our society. And individualism may play an important role in how we think about and use technology. For instance, the more socially disconnected or alienated people feel as a result of the individualistic worldview that privileges personal freedom and independence over social duty and interdependence, the more they may look to social media to meet their basic social needs, even if online connections are poor substitutes for deeper in-person relationships. 

Regardless, there is a growing body of survey and experimental research that indicates that our online lives are harming our real lives, from our relationships to our mental and emotional well-being. Even as we celebrate our increasing technological advances, we should not ignore the real social and psychological tradeoffs that we may be making in the process.