3 reasons why you can’t stop looking at your phone during social situations

It’s become an increasingly unavoidable sight in modern society. Groups of friends gathered together at restaurants, bars, or cafes, but instead of actually talking with one another everyone is scrolling on their phones. 

It’s an image that would puzzle our ancestors, or even just our parents for that matter. Yet, it’s a compulsion that so many of us act on without even consciously thinking about it. Absentmindedly taking out a smartphone mid-conversation to check social media or any number of other apps has become as routine as scratching one’s nose for millions. 

Now, a fascinating new study just released by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has produced three main reasons why people can’t help but take out their phones during social situations nowadays. 

The first is to delay or pause a conversation (interaction suspension), and the second is to avoid or end a conversation (deliberately shielding interaction). Finally, the third reason is to share something with someone else (accessing shareables).

Let’s dive into each of those a bit further. The first reason, interaction suspension, has happened to all of us at some point. You’re in the middle of telling a friend a story, only to see that they’ve been scrolling on their phone for the past five minutes.

This usually happens for any number of reasons; the scroller feels compelled to check social media, their emails, texts, or the news just to make sure they haven’t missed anything since the last time they logged on (which was probably just a few minutes ago).

This behavior, nicknamed “phubbing” (phone plus snubbing equals phubbing), can certainly be perceived as rude by the other person. However, study authors say that isn’t always the case.

“On the one hand, how you suspend your interaction plays a role. If you explain to the person you’re with why you have to postpone your physical interaction, it’s perceived as more polite than if you just disappear and start “phubbing,” that is, phoning someone else and ignoring the person who’s physically present. At the same time, some people may appreciate a short break from a longer conversation, and using the phone can also be a natural, interwoven part of the social interaction that takes place in the café,” says co-author Professor Aksel Tjora in a release.

Using a smartphone to end or avoid a conversation altogether, on the other hand, can actually be a bit more subtle, researchers say.

“When the person you’re with gets busy on their smartphone, the other person in the social setting can pick up their smartphone to demonstrate that they’re busy too and not being involuntarily left to themselves. Or if you’re in a group, you can pick up your phone to avoid a conversation topic by signaling that you are busy. The smartphone offers a break from face-to-face social situations,” explains postdoctoral fellow and first study author Ida Marie Henriksen.

The age-old “trick” of pretending to get an important call or emergency text to get out of an awkward date or interaction can also fall under the “shielding interaction” category.

Finally, the third reason (content sharing) people often take out their phones in public is a much more positive scenario. Smartphone discussions usually only focus on all the negatives these devices bring, so it’s easy to forget they enrich our lives as well. 

“When you take a selfie together, or show pictures of your new girlfriend or kids, or of the house you want to bid on, or the map of where you were on holiday, you’re sharing content,” Tjora notes.

Researchers also stress that in many social meetings all three of these reasons can overlap and play off of each other. Two friends may agree to scroll on their phones for a few minutes initially before putting the devices down for a conversation. 

Similarly, one person may reach for their phone the moment their friend gets up to order a drink or some food. Using smartphones to fill in those short time gaps in day-to-day life has become very common and researchers go so far as to call such behavior a form of addiction. The “always on, constantly updating” nature of smartphones, social media, etc has made it very difficult for many among us to just sit, wait, or work in silence.

That being said, researchers believe their findings show that smartphones haven’t created a population of screen-staring zombies just yet.

“The study dispels the myth that everyone is constantly staring at their screens no matter the occasion, and shows that a form of courtesy with the phone has been established, at least in situations where the social aspect is prioritized,” Tjora concludes. “Whatever the reasons, one thing seems certain: smartphones have changed how we behave socially, for better or for worse. But maybe socializing has just become different in a way we need to become conscious of.”

A total of 52 people sitting in cafes in Trondheim, Norway were interviewed for this research regarding their smartphone habits and how they typically interact with others.

“We focused exclusively on people who seemed to know each other from before and who met to socialize. In addition, we observed 108 other meetings at a distance, kind of like research flies on the wall,” comments study co-author and Ph.D. candidate Marianne Skaar from the Department of Sociology and Political Science.

The full study can be found here, published in Societies.