Ali Pica

YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, ALI: How do I get someone to put their cell phone away when we’re face to face?

YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, ALI: How do I get someone to put their cell phone away when we’re face to face?
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“Smartphone Isolation” writes:

Dear Ali,

I am an older woman who grew up without cell phones. I grew up in an era of landline phones and answering machines, not smartphones with texting, social media, and e-mail. When I spend time with my family, friends, and colleagues, I find myself being frustrated with repeated interruptions of smartphones, such as people texting, posting on Facebook, using FaceTime, or talking on the phone while they are in my presence.

Furthermore, I believe using phones while in someone else’s company is incredibly rude and isolating. Consequently, I cannot understand why people do not understand why this social phenomenon of constantly using smartphones while spending time with another person face to face can be devastating to building and maintaining relationships with others.

Ultimately, my questions to you are:

  • Why did I take the time to see this person in real life?
  • How do we set boundaries in the real world for people who seem happier with the company of their phone instead of an actual person, face to face?
  • Am I that uninteresting?

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Smartphone Isolation

Dear “Smartphone Isolation,”

First, previous research has taught us numerous things, such as the fact that increased social media usage is related to a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and narcissistic behavior. Also, people who have more friends on social media sites are less likely to have what may be considered “true friendships.” Additionally, with the use of cell phones, people have developed what is called “phantom vibration syndrome,” which is the feeling that your cell phone is vibrating, even though it is not at all. I, myself even occasionally think I heard a Facebook chat ding or a text message alert, when in fact I did not.

With the dramatic increased use of cell phones (I also remember a time without cell phones), peoples’ brains are actually physically changing as compared to 10 or 20 years ago. You make a valid point why the daily and incessant use of smartphones, typically a device which people access social media, can be more socially damaging than good.

However, I am lucky to have people in my life, some of whom are surprisingly in their ‘20s, who also believe that spending time without constant smartphone use in the presence of others is a good idea. I have heard countless stories of my friends stating that they walked out on a first date, for reasons like “she was on her phone the entire time” and therefore concluded “she obviously was not interested.” Social isolation from phone usage should not be tolerated, and I agree with you that boundaries should be set in regard to proper phone etiquette.

“What do we do about setting boundaries with people who are constantly on their phone in another’s presence?”

My suggestion to you is to be blunt. Tell them that you would rather spend time with the real them then some make-believe Facebook persona of them. Tell them how spending time with them face to face has many more benefits, such as hearing someone’s voice and seeing their facial expressions. Also, set up some basic guidelines, such as “when we are together, we will not pick up our cell phones for an hour,” or a better suggestion if you are out to lunch or dinner is “first person who picks up their cell phone during dinner pays the check.” I have heard of numerous people who do that and it seems to work out well.

Worst-case scenario, if the person doesn’t want to comply with your simple request, you can always remind them that they do not have 723 friends in real life and that no one cares about their daily trip to Starbucks or seeing pictures of their dog dressed in a tutu. Or you can just simply delete them on Facebook. The choice is yours.

Good luck,


Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Ali is an advice column that runs every Friday on NEPA Scene. E-mail your anonymous question to Ali here to be featured in a future column.