By 2016, 77 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone. Although they’re just small rectangular objects in our pockets, smartphones are leading to significant shifts in how we interact with the world.

Sensationalist news headlines tell us that “smartphones have destroyed a generation” and “social media is ripping apart society.” But what does the research say?

Indeed, young people who use electronic devices more tend to experience greater depression and worse mood. And smartphones seem to be particularly problematic for relationships, leading to social interactions that are lower-quality and less empathic. But there are a wide range of ways you can use your smartphone—from taking photos with your friends to envious Facebook stalking—and only some of them are detrimental.

So, how do you keep your smartphone from harming your connection to others? These research-backed strategies can help protect your relationships in a variety of social situations.

1. Don’t replace face-to-face interactions with electronic interactions

The amount of time we spend using electronic communication has increased considerably since the release of the smartphone. Because we only have a limited amount of time each day, smartphone use can lead us to spend less time with others, which, over time, can drastically and negatively impact our lives.

Why? Because ample research shows that building strong social relationships is one of the best things we can do for our mental and physical health, and it may be easier and faster for us to build these relationships in person. Engaging in face-to-face social interactions tends to improve our mood and reduce depression. Other activities that involve other people—such as attending religious services or engaging in exercise or sports—also have positive effects on our mental health. Without these experiences, our mental health suffers.

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The convenience of the smartphone has made it easier to pass up meaningful social interactions. Although only 23 percent of people say they occasionally use their phone to avoid interacting with others, the rest of us may just opt for what’s easy. We may peruse our friends’ Facebook pages instead of asking them how they’re doing. We may opt to watch Netflix instead of going to the theater with friends. For optimal mental health, though, it seems we should choose face-to-face interactions whenever possible.

2. Don’t use your phone when you’re with other people

To build those strong, in-person relationships, we also have to be mindful of how we use our phones around others.

If you’re with someone and they start using their smartphone, the social interaction tends to be lower-quality. As you’ve probably experienced, it can break the connection, stall a conversation, and make you feel unheard. Most people believe that it’s not OK to use smartphones during social events, and 82 percent believe that smartphone use at social gatherings actually hurts conversations, at least occasionally.

Paradoxically, we continue to use our smartphones. In one study, 89 percent of smartphone users said that they used their phone during the most recent social gathering. And most people believe that their own smartphone use doesn’t take much, if any, of their attention away from the group.

To add insult to injury, when we use our smartphones during social interactions, we also diminish our own experience. One study suggested that people who use their smartphone while dining out with friends experience less interest and enjoyment and more boredom than people who don’t. A similar phenomenon was observed in other types of social interactions.

We seem to be blind to the fact that using our phones around others can negatively impact our lives, even though we are perfectly aware of the damage when other people do it.

So when you’re tempted to pull out your phone at a social event, try to remember how it feels when someone else “phubs” you.

3. Keep your phone out of sight during meaningful conversations

Even refraining from using your phone might not be enough in certain situations. Research suggests that smartphones can be highly distracting, with more than half of Americans saying that smartphones have made it harder to give others their undivided attention. Some research further shows that just having a smartphone present on a table—not even in use—while engaging in a meaningful conversation can reduce the empathy, trust, and relationship quality between the people.

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Imagine how it feels when you’re pouring your heart out to someone and they don’t really understand you or respond to you—maybe they even glance at their phone from time to time. The ability to be present and listen attentively is key to building trust with others. And if we can’t do that, we risk the health of our relationships—something to remember the next time you’re having an important conversation.

4. Don’t let your smartphone stop you from socializing with strangers

A growing body of research suggests that even seemingly trivial interactions with strangers—like chatting with a barista or cashier—play a big role in how socially connected we feel. How might smartphones affect these interactions? Well, to the extent that we are on our smartphones instead of having casual interactions with others, we miss out on opportunities to connect.

In one study, researchers found that having a smartphone on hand led people who needed directions to primarily rely on the phone and not ask others for help. As a result of not interacting with others, the people with smartphones felt less socially connected and thus worse overall (even though they got to their destination faster). This suggests that smartphones can eliminate social interactions in small but important ways that could have long-term consequences on our lives.

After spending the last few decades hearing, “don’t talk to strangers,” we understandably feel some trepidation about talking to people we don’t know. But choosing to reach out to another human being, in many circumstances, can be extremely valuable for our well-being and theirs.

5. If you’re connecting online, be active

We often like to think—or we’ve been told—that social media like Facebook and Twitter can help us connect with others. But it turns out that using electronic devices to connect socially doesn’t work very well, at least not in the short-term.

A recent study showed that our mood and feelings of social connection aren’t any better when communicating online than when not socializing at all. In fact, the more a person mainly interacts with others online, the worse their mood and the lower their feelings of social connection.

“82 percent of people believe that smartphone use at social gatherings actually hurts conversations”
―Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.

It’s human nature to need connection. So instead of passively surfing online or on social media, which we almost invariably do alone, opt instead to do something that involves the active participation of others. For example, one study found that high schoolers who more frequently chat online or use computers with friends tend to have higher-quality friendships. This suggests that technology can be used as a prop when building stronger relationships.

6. Connect with people on your smartphone to cope with pain

Although most of the research suggests that you should prioritize face-to-face interactions over electronic interactions, in-person interactions are not always possible. When a parent is traveling for work or a close friend has moved out of state, then what do you do?

Research suggests that electronic interactions can be beneficial for building and maintaining bonds that couldn’t otherwise exist. Actively chatting or reaching out to people whom you cannot see face-to-face does seem to have benefits, like feeling more socially connected. 

In times of need, reaching out for social support on a smartphone seems to be especially helpful. For example, patients in one study were assigned to one of four groups. During a minor surgery, they had to text message a stranger, text message a companion, play a distracting game (Angry Birds) on their smartphone, or not use their smartphone at all. Ultimately, people who text-messaged either a companion or a stranger needed less painkillers than those who didn’t use their smartphone. This research goes to show that we get a wide range of benefits from social connection, which our smartphones can provide if no other options are available.

In sum, there are many potential ways that smartphones can be detrimental to our social lives. At the same time, smartphones can make many daily tasks easier. The key is to figure out when and for whom they will be helpful or harmful, and researchers are now exploring these questions.

If you can’t possibly imagine getting rid of your smartphone, keep this simple advice in mind: Connect with others, mostly in-person, and keep your smartphone stowed away in case of emergencies.

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