When most Americans wake up in the morning, they reach for their phones first, before coffee or their significant others. While phones give us immediate gratification in many ways, it’s possible that they also negatively affect how socially connected we feel to one another. In recent decades, psychologists have classified the need to belong and feel socially connected as a basic human need, alongside food and shelter. Although most research has focused on this need as fulfilled by family and friends, recent studies suggest that even casual interactions with acquaintances and strangers give people a better sense of belonging.

The question is, if technology supplants face-to-face interactions, does it decrease how socially connected people feel, and ultimately their wellbeing? A research team recently conducted a study to answer this question. They tasked two groups of students, totaling over 270 people, to find an unfamiliar building on campus. One group carried their smartphones during this search; the other did not. The unfamiliar building was roughly a ten-minute walk away from the lab, and both groups could talk to others, follow campus signs, or wander aimlessly to find it. The smartphone group members could also use their devices to find the building. After the students completed this task, they answered a questionnaire about their experience.

Overall, participants with smartphones found the building more quickly than those without. Less than 20% of people with smartphones talked with someone else on their quest, while over 90% of those without smartphones did. Because of this, the group with smartphones reported feeling less socially connected than the group without. Yet despite these variances, the two groups did not have significant differences in mood. Originally, the researchers thought that the loss of social connection would put those with smartphones in a worse mood. While this was true, the feeling seemed to be counterbalanced with happiness at finding the building more quickly.

The findings reveal that while those with smartphones found the building with relative ease, their overall wellbeing was affected by having no social interaction along the way. The group without the smartphone felt more socially connected, and therefore felt happy despite having more difficulties finding the building. This shows that smartphones can make us feel less socially connected even while helping us complete tasks more efficiently.

The key in smartphone use, it seems, is not maximizing efficiency, but rather balancing it with interaction; convenience and connection are both important factors to wellbeing. Even though it’s becoming easier to completely avoid all human interaction (e.g., Seamless, pre-ordering Starbucks drinks, etc.), this study suggests that maybe even trivial face-to-face interactions with strangers make us happier. Maybe sometimes it’s better to put down the phone on the subway and comment on someone’s book choice, to wait in line an extra 5 minutes to order with a barista, or to save some data from your plan and actually ask for directions. Maybe sometimes it’s better to embrace the awkward, just to feel like we belong a little more.

Kushlev, K., Proulx, J., & Dunn, E. (2017). Digitally connected, socially disconnected: The effects of relying on technology rather than other people. Computers in Human Behavior, 76(1), 68–74.

Image: by Steven Spassov via Unsplash