Expert Commentary

Is your smartphone making you unhappy?

Smartphones are distracting. New research shows this distraction can lead to boredom, antisocial behavior and unhappiness.


There’s abundant speculation that our smartphones make us less happy. Twitter: saps your attention. Facebook: fills you with FOMO. Email: your boss is barking directives again.

A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology finds science behind the speculation. The researchers, from the University of British Columbia and the University of Virginia, conduct two experiments that show smartphone distractions reduce how much we enjoy one thing repeatedly shown to make humans happy: face-to-face social interactions.

In the first, 304 participants each had dinner with a small group of friends or family. Half were told to keep their smartphone handy for a questionnaire, which would arrive by text, about the meal. Half were asked to turn their phones to silent and stash them away, instructed that they would receive questions later by paper. After the meal, all participants answered questions about how much they enjoyed their social interactions, how connected they felt, how distracted or bored. Lastly, participants reported how much they used their mobile phones; this response was compared with video footage of the meal (participants consented to being recorded, but didn’t know why they were being videotaped). This part of the study found that:

  • Participants who used their phones — known as “the phone condition” — reported “significantly lower interest and enjoyment than those in the phoneless condition.”
  • Participants in the phone condition reported feeling more distracted and slightly more bored.
  • “We found that phone use had a small negative effect on well-being.”

In the second experiment, the researchers surveyed 123 American public-university students by text message five times a day at random for a week, asking them how they were feeling and what they had been doing for the last 15 minutes. Over 41 percent of responses occurred while participants were interacting with someone face-to-face. While using their smartphones, these people reported feeling:

  • more distracted and more bored;
  • less interested in their interactions with other people;
  • that time was moving more slowly.

That the second survey records the negative effects of smartphones among university students was especially notable, the researchers point out: “This generation has grown up with mobile technology, and some [researchers] have raised the possibility that young people might therefore be relatively adept at multi-tasking in real world contexts. […] Yet, our findings suggest that even the moderate levels of phone use we observed are sufficient to create feelings of distraction that undermine the emotional rewards of social interaction.”

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