Using Your Phone at the Table Makes You Unhappy

CC BY 2.0. Tony Hisgett

Having tech on the table causes diners to feel more distracted and less socially engaged.

Go into any restaurant or bar these days and you'll see smartphones lying on every table. Sometimes face up, sometimes face down, these phones are as common a sight as napkins, cutlery, and a pint of beer. They've become an integral part of the social fabric, providing distraction, escape, and entertainment.

Even though I've grown used to the sight, I still find it weird, especially when someone is sitting with a group of friends while looking at their phone. (I am guilty of this occasionally, though I really try not to do it.) There is something terribly wrong with a scene where one's immediate company is not of sufficient interest and must be supplemented with a quick social media fix.

My suspicion that it doesn't make anyone feel happier to be checking one's phone while hanging out with friends has been confirmed by a new study out of British Columbia. Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a two-part study was designed to determine how looking at one's phone affects happiness.

In the first part, 300 participants were told to go out for a meal with friends or family. Half the group was told to put away their phones for the meal's duration since they'd respond to questions on paper later; the other half was told to expect a text message during the meal, so they should keep their device on the table. The results showed a dip in pleasure among phone users, who found themselves using their phones for 11 percent of the mealtime, just because they were on the table.

The second part consisted of researchers texting questions to 100 participants five times a day for one week. Each text asked a participant about their emotional state and what they'd been doing in the past 15 minutes. Those who had been engaged in a face-to-face interaction with someone else while simultaneously using their phone reported a greater sense of unhappiness than those who were face-to-face without a phone in hand.

From the study discussion:

"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."

Elizabeth Dunn, one of the study co-authors, told Food & Wine that using a phone at the table is contagious. People are more likely to do it when they see others doing the same: "By putting your own phone away, you might be creating a positive domino effect."

She's absolutely right. Last weekend I was out with a group of friends, waiting for food late at night. Some people pulled out their phones, but there was a woman sitting across from me who never once looked at hers; she didn't even have it on the table. As a result, I fought the urge to look at mine; I wanted to live up to her impressive standards!

Study co-author Ryan Dwyer suggests setting phone-use boundaries:

"Have a rule that if you’re going to go out to dinner with some friends or family members, you’ll put your phone on silent and leave it off the table. Try to stick to these rules so you can form new habits."

We may all be social media addicts and information junkies, but it's still important to remind ourselves that the world will continue to go on, even if we aren't checking in every five minutes. What matters is what's right in front of us. That's where the real connections take place. So, the next time your fingers get twitchy, take a drink instead. Smile. Ask a question, and see how the time flies.