How My Smartphone Transformed My Life

Ryan Plomp/Unsplash

Source: Ryan Plomp/Unsplash

It’s been 10 years since I made a decision that would forever change my life. This decision has altered the way I communicate with others, the way I spend my free time, and what I research. Though I did not know it at the time, my life would change profoundly when I decided to purchase my first smartphone.

It wasn’t long after I acquired my first iPhone that I began to notice that my ability to concentrate on my work diminished. As more and more friends and colleagues ditched their flip phones for these handheld computers, I also began to notice that smartphones distracted people far beyond the work setting. Smartphones competed for our attention when we spent time even with the closest people in our lives. A year after my purchase, I was dancing at a festival when the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation appeared to me with remarkable clarity: I was going to research whether smartphones impact well-being by interfering with our in-person social interactions.

Even since my dance-floor epiphany, my collaborators and I have conducted a slew of experiments showing that smartphones do indeed interfere with people’s ability to reap the benefits of in-person social interactions. We have shown, for example, that friends randomly assigned to have their phones on the table while eating at a café enjoyed the experience less than those sharing a meal with their phones put away. In another study, parents asked to be on their phones while enjoying a science museum with their children found the experience less meaningful than parents asked to limit their phone use. We recently summarized these and other studies in a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Based on the body of my published work, you could be forgiven if you thought I believe that smartphones are ruining our lives. Indeed, I have even had friends tell me that they are more self-conscious when they use their phones around me. Rest assured: I neither hate my phone nor do I judge other people’s phone use.

First, as researchers often say, “Research is me-search.” In other words, researchers often study topics that are directly relevant to their own behavior and problems. Indeed, I only study the effects of smartphones because I am as guilty as anybody for using my phone—quite a bit.

Second, I deliberately set out to study whether phones interfere with social interactions. Thus, it is not surprising that most of what I have found documents precisely those negative effects. Still, even though the majority of my research shows the costs of smartphone use, our findings are inconsistent with the thesis that smartphones are ruining our lives. In the café study, for example, all participants enjoyed their meal; people with their phones on the table simply enjoyed the meal slightly less. So, no, phones are not ruining your dinner—unless, of course, you are glued to your phone the entire time, but people typically use their phones in short bursts during social interactions.

I do admit, however, that my research has influenced the way I use my smartphone. You will likely not find me with my phone next to my dinner plate or checking my notifications when somebody is talking to me. I typically have my smartphone on silent, so that I have more control over my attention. And I batch my notifications, so that I can attend to them a few times a day rather than as they come in. But I am not going back to my flip phone anytime soon, either. In fact, I would argue that my smartphone has had a net positive effect on my well-being.

With my smartphone faithfully in my pocket wherever I go, I can save time when ordering my morning coffee, finding the best restaurant, or doing my banking. In fact, in one study, we showed that people were in a better mood when trying to get somewhere with their phones versus without them. But my smartphone has positively impacted my life in far more profound ways. Without my smartphone, I would not have met my husband. Sharing my life with him has been a robust source of happiness.

Our smartphones have transformed our lives in a multitude of ways. I have made it my mission to document the subtle costs of these devices, not because I think smartphones are bad for us, but precisely the opposite: With so much information, entertainment, and connection only a swipe away, smartphones should be making us happier. My goal for this page, therefore, is to share the latest research on phones, so that we can all reap the benefits of these amazing devices while minimizing their costs.