No doubt you see teenagers all around you staring at their phones nonstop. But you may wonder what is so important on that screen that dominates their attention. Are they securing an important business contract? Applying for scholarships?

Not exactly. Ninety-one percent of 13-to-17-year-olds in a recent study say they are just passing time. Pew Research Center also found 84% of teens say they are connecting with other people and 83% report they are learning new things.

Connecting and learning sure seem like worthy ways to spend time on a device, and I think most of us are guilty of using our gadgets to pass the time. But one statistic is a little concerning to me as well as some psychologists. Forty-three percent of teenagers in the study admit to using their phones to avoid interacting with people. This is much more true for girls than boys, with a majority of girls saying they sometimes or often do it.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, teens are using their phones to avoid interacting with those around them. | Pew Research Center

Adults surely aren’t doing this, though. Right? Well actually, yes they are. A 2015 study from Pew Research Center found 23% of adults also admitted they use their phones to avoid interaction with people around them. I’ve seen this in action so many times. Get in any elevator, wait for the doors to shut and look around. Every single person will pull their phones out as quickly as possible. I guess eye contact or a quick hello is just too difficult.

I understand that some kids and adults have a tough time with social interaction because of shyness or anxiety, and I give them a pass.

Let’s remember 84% percent of teens in the most recent Pew Research Center survey said they use their phones to connect with others, and only 43% said they use their phones to avoid others. But digital connection is different than face-to-face connection. Conversational skills are important and must be practiced and learned. Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has explained, “Our capacity to listen and hear the tone of voice, the feelings behind the spoken word or text, is one of our most essential human tools for communicating and connecting.”

It may be possible that our phones are eliminating our need to interact with one another in real life because we do so easily in our online life.

A recent study found that people who had their phones on them were much less likely to smile at a stranger than people who were without their phones. These devices are actually limiting how often we smile at other human beings.

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We have to do better for our own mental health.

A study published in Psychological Science found that the more people were around others and interacting in real life, the higher their sense of well-being. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, told NBC, “Whether it’s someone you’ve never met or it’s friends and family, spending time with people face to face is linked with happiness.” Maybe that seems like common sense, but if a big chunk of us are avoiding interacting with each other at all costs, then it doesn’t seem we are using that common sense.

Phones have more good qualities than I can count and keep us connected with friends and family in a way we could never do otherwise. But we must pry our eyes away from the screen when other people are around, even strangers. Let’s try harder to make eye contact, say hello and smile.

Even Apple CEO Tim Cook has said his own company never wanted users staring at their phones all the time. “If you’re looking at a phone more than someone’s eyes,” he said, “you’re doing the wrong thing.”

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