Digital Devices Get In the Way of Family Interaction More Than We Think


Aug 14, 2018


According to two studies from University of British Columbia presented at the American Psychological Association annual convention, digital devices make us increasingly distracted, aloof and drained. There’s an element of stating the obvious to these findings on the effects of electronic gadgets, but they show the extent to which common, unconscious digital habits get in the way of meaningful interaction.

In the first study, researchers had subjects attend a dinner with family and friends; half of the subjects were instructed to keep their phone on the table during the meal, the other half kept their phones tucked away.

“People who were allowed to use their phones during dinner had more trouble staying present in the moment,” says lead author Ryan Dwyer, MA, of the University of British Columbia, Canada. “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 sidetrack us and take away from the special moments we have with friends and family in person.”

Indeed, participants with easy access to their phones used them more, reported feeling more distracted, and enjoyed the experience less.

The second study involved 120 participants from the University of Virginia, who were asked to take a survey five times a day for a week. They were asked to report what they were feeling and doing 15 minutes before taking the survey. People who used their smartphones during a face-to-face communication were more distracted and experienced less enjoyment than those who didn’t use their smartphone.

“The survey findings were especially notable because of the negative effects of phone use among university students, who are commonly known as digital natives,” says Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, also of University of British Columbia. Dunn was a co-author of the first study. “We assumed that this generation would be more adept at multi-tasking 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.”

The findings are particularly relevant amid growing worry over the effects of digital device use on kids. But, as The Swaddle has reported before, while the impact on these so-called digital natives may be direct, it’s also compounded by parents’ device use.

According to a 2015 survey that interviewed more than 6,000 children, aged 8 to 13, across eight countries, 54% of kids felt their parents spent too much time on the phone. Further, 32% of children reported feeling neglected and unimportant when parents were preoccupied with their phones. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical and consulting psychologist at Harvard University, and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, interviewed more than 1,000 children between ages 4 to 18, and found across age groups, kids felt “exhausted and frustrated and sad or mad trying to get their parents’ attention, competing with computer screens or iPhone screens or any kind of technology.”

To some extent, it’s a matter of biology; every time we check our phones for an email or a notification, we get a little hit of dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’ that keeps us coming back for more, not unlike an addict. But much of human history has been about overcoming biological limitations. Amid a loneliness epidemic, and evidence of our increased distraction, this might be our newest, most pressing evolutionary hurdle.


Written By Angelina Shah

Angelina Shah is a staff writer with The Swaddle. In her previous life she was a copywriter in advertising. She has a penchant for reading, singing, travelling and being obsessed with superheroes.


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