The Art Of Asking People to Put Their Phone Away


In 2016, when actress Jennifer Lawrence was talking to the press after winning a Golden Globe for her performance in the movie “Joy,” she told a reporter to put their phone away. “You can’t live your whole life behind your phone, bro,” she told the reporter while waving her finger. “You can’t do that, you know, you have to live in the now,” she continued. The reporter responded by saying, “sorry, sorry, sorry.”

Studies have shown that the mere presence of a cell phone puts our brains on alert for potential distractions, making cognitive functioning, and connecting in person difficult. So why aren’t we asking people more often to give us their full attention and put the phone away?

Let’s talk about the art of asking people to put their phone away. The way you approach the ask is key to its effectiveness. I have asked dozens of middle and high schoolers whether they ever ask friends to put their phones away. About 80% of them tell me they have. When I inquire about their tactic, many say what works them is to just be straight forward and say something like “Hey, can you put please your phone away.” A couple of people have said that they don’t ask but instead leave the room, hoping the person will get the clue.

Often youth are together looking at YouTube videos, and when that is happening they tend not to ask for phones to be put away. But, when one or many of the friends are clearly just communicating with someone else via their phone, is the time when someone is more likely to ask for phones to be put away.

Adults seem to ask this much less often but clearly, there are times when a direct ask, or a little nudge, can be helpful to the situation at hand. My teen daughter, Tessa, and I were talking today about how people ask for phones to be put away. Then, later in the day, I was driving her somewhere, and she was checking her phone, and I said “Hey, what are you doing?” because she knows we have a no-phone-in-the-car rule. She laughed and said, “That’s how you always ask me to put my phone away — ”Hey, what are you doing?”  She was right, that is often my go-to for the family.

But let’s think of situations not involving our family members such as trying to have a conversation with a friend at school or friend at work who are clearly having a long conversation or other preoccupation on the phone.

Let’s consider some example phrases – could you see yourself ever saying something like any of the following?

  • “You seem really busy, should we shoot for another time together instead of now?” Just that one sentence can result in the person apologizing and putting their device away.

  • Another example, “It would be great to have your attention. I know many others want it right now too. What are your thoughts?”

  • Or, how about “Would you mind waiting until we are done to use your phone?”  

One helpful approach is to try to get ahead of the situation. In Screenagers there is a scene where a group of teenagers is out at a restaurant, and they all put their phones in the middle of the table and the first one to check their phone pays the bill. How about trying this with your family but the first one to check it has to do the dishes?

Elaine Giolando, who writes for Fast Company, not long ago decided enough was enough and began asking people to put their phones down. “It’s an experiment in doing something pretty unthinkable these days: asking for someone’s full attention,” she writes in the article. “It takes some vulnerability to speak up, but I’ve found it’s also provoked worthwhile conversations about the importance of being present.”

Undistracted presence fosters connection and trust in a relationship. There is nothing wrong with asking the person you are with to put the phone down. But how we do it is important.

A final note, here a few videos that are fun to watch on the subject:

  • Adam Levine of Maroon 5 asking the crowd at one of their packed concerts to put their phones away for the next song.

  • A video from Fog and Smog Films about putting your phone away.  

For this TTT, talk with your family about the art of asking people to put their device away to get people’s full attention. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Have you heard people ask others to put their phone away? Have you done it?

  2. What are “wrong” or rude ways of asking? What are effective ways to ask?

  3. What approaches do some teachers have that you find respectful and effective?

  4. How can we do better at asking each other for device-less attention?

Here are 3 other TTTs you might be interested in:

Vacation, Time to Unplug?
Ways to Manager Screen Time this Summer
Vacation from Notifications

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