Why can’t we resist checking our smartphones in the presence of others?

TRONDHEIM, Norway — From IBM’s first smartphone in the early 1990s to Apple’s revolutionary iPhone, mobile phones have become a necessity in the lives of many people. For millions, it’s practically an appendage. Today, approximately 3.8 billion people own a smartphone — almost 50% of the world’s population. It’s clear for many that the addicting devices are also causing lapses in social etiquette. That is, the urge to pull out a smartphone in the middle of a conversation with someone or while out to dinner with a group of friends seems nearly impossible to resist. 

Why? There’s not an app for that. But there is a study. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology identified three possible reasons people fidget with their smartphones in the presence of others.

Advances in technology, such as the invention of apps and other smartphone tools, have made it easier for people to control business and personal events all in one device. Smartphones, of course are used for taking pictures, announcing events on social media, scheduling meetings, keeping in touch, and many more tasks that occur on a daily basis. “This makes the smartphone important, both socially and sociologically,” says study first author Ida Marie Henriksen, a postdoctoral fellow, 

And while they make it easier to be social, ironically, they can also hinder social time with others when people are face to face.

For the study, researchers visited several cafes and interviewed 52 people, asking specifically about their smart device use and their interaction 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,” says Marianne Skaar, a Ph.D. candidate from the Department of Sociology and Political Science.

3 central reasons people take out their smartphones while with others

The researchers found that one reason many use the phone in front of others is simply to check social media, email, or a text conversation with another person. Interruption like this would normally be considered as rudeness by the person physically present. However, they say that a quick explanation for the pause in conversation before use of the device was deemed as polite and acceptable.

The second reason people use their smartphone is to avoid conversation with another person. A person might whip out their phone to signal that they are busy or pretend they have a call to answer, although the phone is on silent. “The smartphone offers a break from face-to-face social situations,” says Henriksen.

Lastly, smartphones are brought out among others to share content, such as pictures or videos. “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,” notes Aksel Tjora, a professor at NTNU. 

Situations where a person is ordering or maybe in the restroom offer a chance for the partner to quickly check their smartphone before getting back to the physical conversation. “If you go to a café to be social, the person with you in real life is the focus,” says Henriksen.

Findings are published in the journal Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.