Thanksgiving is a mixed bag. There’s no denying that the dinner feast, the copious wine, and the time off from work is great, but for many, the awkward — often contentious — dinner table conversations can feel downright unpleasant. In recent years, our phones have provided a handy escape from the more unbearable moments, but scientists warn in a new Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study that it might only be making the worst part of the holidays worse.
In their paper, the University of British Columbia researchers report that having your smart phone out during a meal is directly correlated to how much you’ll enjoy face-to-face social interaction with the people around the table, even if you actually like them in the first place.
Previous research in related areas has shown that excessive social media use on smart phones is causing depression and anxiety in teens and hacks our reward systems, but this is one of the first to focus exclusively on the psychological effects of using phones at the table during a meal with friends.
In the first experiment, the researchers asked over 300 participants, many of them university students, to share a meal at a local café with three to five friends or family members. Half were randomly assigned to keep their phones on the table, while the other half were asked to put their phones away, and the researchers provided a “cover story” so the participants wouldn’t know the real purpose of the experiment.
After the meal, the participants filled out a survey that asked questions about how energetic, distracted, interested, bored, tense, or socially connected they felt during the meal and how much they enjoyed spending time with friends and family. Those who had their phones out during the study also reported how much they’d used it.
In their analysis of these results, the researchers found that, generally, people who had their phones out felt more distracted, which, in turn, decreased how much they enjoyed spending time with their friends and family.
The second experiment, which didn’t involve phone use during a meal with close friends or family and instead focused on phone use in 128 people during face-to-face social interactions in general, showed similar patterns. People who use phones while they’re supposed to be interacting with people who aren’t on their phones, the researchers conclude, generally feel more bored about their interactions and are in a worse mood afterward.
“Phone use also had indirect negative effects, via distraction, on other well-being outcomes; in both studies, phone use predicted distraction, which in turn predicted greater boredom and worse overall mood,” they wrote in their paper.
Noting that many of the participants are current university students — people thought to be good at “multitasking” phone use and other activities — the researchers point out that the data suggests they’re not as good at juggling various forms as social interaction as one might think.
“This idea is particularly compelling in the context of extended social interactions, such as sharing a meal with friends, given that natural lulls in conversation might afford the ability to attend to one’s phone without any detectable cost,” they write. “Yet, our findings suggest that even the moderate levels of phone use we observed are sufficient to create feelings of distraction that undermine the emotional rewards of social interaction.”
These findings don’t bode well for your enjoyment of future holiday gatherings with family and friends — because despite all of the things that smart phones and social media seem to be doing to our brains, there’s no indication we’ll be getting rid of them anytime soon.