Our digital lives may be undermining the happiness we receive from face-to-face interactions, according to a new study. And weirdly, this is particularly the case for younger generations who are more digitally savvy.
You’d think those who grew up using electronic devices for just about everything, would have a greater sense of control over their digital lives, or even derive more joy from them. But new research is showing this may not be the case.
Even young people, who are used to having conversations while posting photos of their meals, still don’t know how to balance social interactions with digital screen time – and that has costs for their mental health and well-being.
Two recent papers presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association show that even minor phone usage can make people more distracted, distant, and drained.
One of the studies, which surveyed 120 college students, found that smartphone use has a lingering effect on our social interactions. In the study, students were asked five times a day for one week how they are feeling and what they had been doing in the 15 minutes before undertaking the questionnaire.
In a turn of events that not even the researchers saw coming, students reported feeling more distracted during face-to-face interactions after using their smartphones. What’s more, they also expressed less interest and enjoyment from such intimate socialising.
“The survey findings were especially notable because of the negative effects of phone use among university students, who are commonly known as digital natives,” said co-author Elizabeth Dunn, who conducts experimental research examining how time, money, and technology shape human happiness.
“We assumed that this generation would be more adept at multitasking between using their phones and interacting with others, but we found out even moderate levels of phone use undermined the benefits of engaging with others.”
In a similar vein, another study in the same paper found that smartphone use can reduce our involvement and enjoyment when having dinner with friends and family.
Bringing together more than 300 adults and university students in Vancouver, British Columbia, the researchers set up a field experiment ostensibly “investigating people’s experience dining out with friends”.
During the event, some participants were asked to have their phone on the dinner table with sound or vibration turned on, in order to receive a study-related survey question. Others were told they’d get a survey question on paper, and were asked to turn their phones on silent and keep them in a container on the table throughout the meal.
Afterwards, the participants filled out a survey asking them questions about their feelings of social connectedness, enjoyment, distraction and boredom, as well as recount how much they used their phones during the meal and what exactly they used them for.
Not only were those who had their phones close at hand more likely to use them, these participants also reported feelings of distraction. In the end, they tended to enjoy the dinner less than their phone-free counterparts.
While none of this is proof of causation, smartphone use was related to distraction and not opportunity costs. As a result, the authors suggest that phones are making us less satisfied because they are stopping us from engaging fully with the present.
“People who were allowed to use their phones during dinner had more trouble staying present in the moment,” explained lead author, psychologist Ryan Dwyer.
“Decades of research on happiness tell us that engaging positively with others is critical for our well-being. Modern technology may be wonderful, but it can easily side-track us and take away from the special moments we have with friends and family in person.”
But if you are too buried in your online persona, these special moments might pass you by, and certain people are at risk of this more than others. A second paper presented at the convention highlights that self-centred or narcissistic people tend to spend more time on social media than people who are more compassionate.
It’s probably not surprising to many of you that narcissistic people tend to use social media more, given it’s such a hotbed for self-obsession.
What is remarkable, however, is that those people with lower emotional intelligence, or those who have trouble identifying and processing emotions, were more likely to use social media compared to those who are emotionally “in touch”.
This connection has rarely been studied in the past, and it suggests a fruitful area for research in the future.
“People who are uncomfortable with their own and others’ emotions may be more comfortable online,” said co-author Sara Konrath, whose research is focused on better understanding human empathy.
“We think that they may prefer text-based interactions that allow them more time to process social and emotional information.”
This paper looked at four studies of more than 1,200 participants in total, who responded to a survey based on personal assessments of narcissism, empathy, emotional intelligence and emotion recognition.
At the same time, the participants were asked to log how often they check or post to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The findings suggest that people with more empathy tend to frequent the Twitter-sphere less than those who are less caring or compassionate towards others. Similarly, it was found that those who can read emotions better spend less time on Twitter and Facebook.
Being able to see another’s perspective on the world, which is an important factor of empathy, also plays a role here. The study found people who were able to place themselves in other people’s shoes spent less time scrolling through their feeds on Facebook or Instagram.
On the flip side, narcissists, or those who are easily overwhelmed by emotional experiences, spent the most amount of time on all three platforms.
“Does being more emotionally intelligent and empathic cause people to avoid social media, or are lower empathy people more drawn to it? It could also be the opposite: Perhaps frequently using social media can impair empathy and emotional intelligence,” said Konrath.
“We cannot determine causality with this study. We need more research to better understand how online digital technology affects people, for better or for worse.”
Together, this latest research supports the idea that our digital lives come with an unexpected price. Now, we just need to figure out what that cost actually is, so we can learn how to mitigate it.
The first paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The second paper is yet to be published, but the abstract can be read through the American Psychological Association website.