Party of Three: How Your Device Impacts Your First Date

Research reveals how even a silent phone speaks volumes.

Posted Sep 06, 2018

Texting has become as natural as talking.  Everyone does it.  But has its ubiquity impacted its acceptability?  Research reveals that even in the age of electronic communication, divided attention impacts relational satisfaction.  Divided attention may be particularly off-putting on a first date, because first impressions are often hard to overcome.

How Texting Impacts Relationships

Recent research by Daniel Halpern and James E. Katz (2017) found that texting frequency has a negative impact on relational satisfaction.[i] In a study entitled “Texting's Consequences for Romantic Relationships,” they found that texting behavior causes relational conflict and detracts from relational intimacy by displacing attention paid to romantic partners. They found that over time, both of these results decrease perceived quality of the relationship.

Halpern and Katz cite prior research corroborating what we all feel instinctively—that partnerships encompass more than simply being present together.  A partnership means that both partners focus on each other instead of being distracted.  Constant cell phone use detracts from potential responsiveness to the needs of a partner, which can cause both partners to perceive decreased relational communication, commitment, and satisfaction.

Mere Presence Speaks Volumes

A study by Shalini Misra et al. labeled “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices” (2016) found that as observed by a trained research assistant, device-free conversation between participants was rated as superior to conversation where a device was on the table or in the hand of either participant.[ii]  This result held to be true regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or even mood. 

Further, they found that pairs who had a conversation in the presence of a mobile device reported lower levels of empathy, even when they had a close relationship than conversation partners who had a less friendly relationship. 

The results showed that conversation quality, where either partner held a mobile device in their hand or put it on the table, was rated by the observer as less fulfilling. Conversation partners themselves reported perceiving less empathetic concern when talking within the visual presence of a mobile device.  This effect was more pronounced when conversing dyads shared a closer relationship.

The researchers speculated that this result might be due to the fact that mobile devices have symbolic value.  Even when not flashing, beeping, or buzzing, they represent a portal to a wide network of contacts and link to instant information.  Their presence is a distraction due to the potential to draw attention away from an in-person conversation, which undermines the depth and character of the interaction. 

Phone Snubbing Puts a Damper on Romance

Cell phone focus has even earned its own slang term.  Snubbing someone through focusing on one's phone instead of a conversation partner has become known as “phubbing.”  Research by Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas (2016) revealed that phubbing has become normalized.[iii]  They found phubbing behavior to be tied to Internet addiction, self-control, and fear of missing out.  They also note that the frequency of public phubbing may cause others to believe such behavior is socially acceptable, and that the rule of reciprocity may prompt “phubbees” to become “phubbers” in retaliation to the snub. 

James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, in a study entitled “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone” (2017), studied phubbing behavior between romantic partners.[iv] They found that romantic partner phubbing, called “Pphubbing,” (note the extra “P”) was moderated by attachment anxiety. While Pphubbing behavior caused conflict for everyone, people with anxious attachment styles might over-react to such behavior as compared to people with more secure attachment styles, resulting in less relationship satisfaction. 

Roberts and David further found that decreased relationship satisfaction (created in part by being the recipient of Pphubbing) increased depression by decreasing life satisfaction. 

The Attraction of Attention 

Let´s face it, many people are smitten with their devices—often preferring their company to other people.  True, when we are not playing games or watching YouTube videos, we use our devices to “talk.”  But we miss all of the nonverbal bonding cues that build relationships.  

Most people try to balance both worlds. They spend time with others in person, and online. But there is a time and place for everything—including your device.  Even the presence of a phone sitting on the table between you and your date is a barrier to bonding.  

Bottom line: if you want to build relationships, remember that attention is attractive.  Especially if you are on a first date, bestow your attention on your conversation partner, not your device.


[i]Daniel Halpern and James E. Katz, “Texting´sConsequences for Romantic Relationships: A Cross-Lagged Analysis Highlights Its Risks,” Computers in Human Behavior 71 (2017): 386–394.

[ii]Shalini Misra, Lulu Cheng, Jamie Genevie, and Miao Yuan, ”The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices,” Environment and Behavior 48, no. 2 (2016): 275-298.

[iii]Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas, ”How ´phubbing´ becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone,” Compuers in Human Behavior 63 (2016): 9-18.

[iv]James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, ”My life has become a major distraction from my cell hpone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners,” Computers in Human Behavior 54 (2016): 134-141.