Parents Talk Back: In the shadow of the smartphone

So often on a lunch date with a friend or loved one, as soon as we are seated, we cradle the other object of our affection in our hands and painstakingly lay it down next to our plate.

The gesture may provoke a quick, guilty explanation – work or kids are the usual culprits. We know it’s an intrusion but a necessary evil. We certainly won’t answer to chitchat with just anyone. We will apologize if we need to be diverted by someone with needs more pressing than our present company.

Manners, you know.

And when we manage to abstain from casting a wayward eye for the entirety of a meal, when we refuse to be lured away despite being beckoned, we may feel a muted sense of pride. It is a modern accomplishment to pay undivided attention to a single person for an entire hour. There are plenty who have not managed this feat in some time.

But before we get too pleased with ourselves, consider that the mere presence of the phone during the conversation lessens the experience. Not the annoying interruption by an urgent call, or the reply to a text or the sneaked check of Instagram. According to new research, the mere presence of a mobile device visible to both parties changes the nature of the social interaction.

Shalini Misra, lead author of a 2014 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, examined the smartphone effect on the quality of social interactions.

The researchers designed a study in which they approached 100 pairs of people entering coffee shops, and asked if they wanted to participate in a 10-minute study about conversations. The two participants were assigned to have either a casual conversation on the topic of plastic holiday trees or a meaningful conversation about important events in their lives from the past year.

The participants were unaware they were being watched during the conversation, and their verbal and nonverbal interactions noted. Afterward, they answered a survey about how empathetic and connected they felt toward the other person and their pre-existing level of closeness.

The experiment found that people who placed a mobile device on the table during the conversation had lower levels of connectedness and empathy toward the conversation partner. Both people in the pair experienced less connectedness. People who reported being closer to one another were more disrupted by the presence of the cellphone than those with a more casual relationship. The topic of the conversation, whether superficial or deep, did not have any significant impact on the results.

Misra, an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University, says the modern mobile device is a symbol of our social networks and contacts. In this digital age, we are constantly in a “poly-conscious” state, she said, in which the person in front of us does not necessarily take precedence over the contacts to whom we are digitally connected.

“A few years ago, people who were in front of you took your attention, as opposed to those who were far away,” she said.

While it may be surprising that one does not actually need to use a mobile device for its presence to be disruptive, it’s less surprising that the closer the relationship, the more disrupted the conversation by the presence of a phone.

“We are socialized to expect focused attention from the people we care about the most,” Misra said. Any parent who has tried to communicate with a child enraptured by a mobile device has felt that frustration. Perhaps many children have felt the same sense of playing second fiddle when a parent is easily distracted by a device.

“Refrain from the constant urge to be plugged into the flow of information if you really want empathy” from your interactions, Misra advised.

After all, it can feel terrible to compete with an inanimate object, a symbol of everything and everyone more compelling than us. It feels even worse to lose.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.