In the summer of 2011, when Twitter was just entering the mainstream and the iPhone 4 was all the rage, a tech-obsessed friend invited me to lunch for my birthday. I liked my friend (obviously) but generally tried to avoid eating with him. His smartphone use approached the pathological, and I never relished a meal spent fielding waitresses' pity-smiles while my pal scrolled through his phone with one hand and shoveled sushi with the other.
Nevertheless, I appreciated the lunch gesture. So we agreed to meet up on one strict condition: For the duration of the meal, he wouldn't touch his phone. No emails. No Foursquare check-ins. Not a single Instagram. ("That is literally my one birthday wish," I remember impressing on him. "One hour without the phone. You can do it. Really.")
By the time the waiter brought water, he'd already checked Twitter. And far from feeling slighted, I was vaguely bemused: Like two-thirds of Americans in 2011, I didn't even have a smartphone — so the whole thing struck me as almost humorous, like a parody of socializing.
Three years later, however, that situation isn't particularly absurd. Well over half of all American adults own smartphones. One-third of them use their phones during dinner, that most fundamental of social encounters. And a mounting pile of evidence suggests that my bad birthday lunch, far from an absurdity or a one-off, is increasingly the norm. Our smartphones are hurting our relationships — and that's hurting us.
"Even without active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections," reads a disturbing new study from researchers at Virginia Tech University. "Individuals are more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes in the tone of their conversation partner's voice, and have less eye contact" — just because a cellphone is physically present.
Researchers and tech-watchers have long understood that the chirping, insatiable temptations of our little screens change the way we interact with other people. In the past couple of years, a mountain of studies has demonstrated that cellphone use makes us more selfish, more easily distracted and more stressed. A survey last March suggested that nearly 9 in 10 people feel that their loved ones neglect them in favor of technology on a weekly basis.
But despite this frightening body of research, it seems we're only just beginning to understand the depth and the reach of the problem and are starting to grasp for solutions to solve it. This new paper from Virginia Tech is concerning because it confirms that the mere passive presence of cellphones cheapens in-person conversation, even when we're not looking at them.
Researchers theorize that our phones now function not merely as communications devices, but as a kind of social cue — a prompt to think about emails and tweets and the number of likes on that Instagram photo you just posted, taking your attention away from the people in front of you.
Perhaps that sounds a little abstract; "attention" is, after all, an ambiguous and subjective term, right up there with "trust" and "selfishness" and "pro-social behavior" — three other traits that phone-use has been shown to impact.
But there are nagging hints that "attention" can translate into very tangible harms. Two weeks ago, for instance, a New York restaurateur took to Craigslist to complain that selfish, cellphone-wielding patrons had hurt his business and inconvenienced servers. After comparing surveillance tapes from 2004 and 2014 and timing the customer interactions in each, he claimed to have noticed a distinct change: Patrons now take nearly three times as long to order, and twice as long to finish their meal, because they're photographing their food, taking selfies and otherwise messing around on their phones, he wrote. As a result, the business has seen an uptick in bad online reviews relating to long wait times and slow service.
"We are grateful for everyone who comes into our restaurant, after all there are so many choices out there," the post concluded. "But can you please be a bit more considerate?"
Some restaurants have not been quite so diplomatic. Applebee's — the world's largest casual-dining chain — has filed a trademark for something called "No Tech Tuesday," which is rumored to be in anticipation of a program of the same name. Even Washington, a town where people are rarely far from their BlackBerrys, has lately gotten in on the anti-smartphone action: Last week, celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn opened a D.C. speakeasy that prohibits photos.
"Don't be on your phone," Mendelsohn told Washington City Paper. "You have the rest of your life to be on your phone."
As I said to my friend at that fateful birthday lunch (multiple times, with decreasing good humor): Is whatever thing you're looking at on a glass screen really that much more compelling than the living, breathing human in front of you? Power to you, if it is. But if it isn't? What a sad, self-defeating waste.