In 2012, two University of Essex researchers reported the results of a thoroughly alarming study: The presence of a cell phone on a nearby desk led college students, who’d been paired off to converse for 10 minutes, to feel more distanced from, less empathetic toward, and less trusting of their discussion partners. Students also rated the brief relationships they’d formed as being of a lower quality.
It was the intimacy of conversations that really took a hit, the researchers found. When discussions were casual, the cell phone on the desk made little difference. But when conversations touched on more meaningful topics, the device—though it remained still, silent, off to the side, and unanswered—discouraged conversation partners from warming to one another.