Smartphones have become our constant companions. They tell us what time it is, the weather forecast, how many steps we've taken and the best route to get to wherever we want to go. It's probably hard for most people to imagine a day without them.

Our phones can do much more for us than count steps and find a restaurant nearby. They can reduce the loneliness and social isolation that have become a growing public health concern. Smartphones can improve social functioning, helping users become more aware and accepting. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth and Pennsylvania State Universities developed a smartphone-based mindfulness training that can help people feel less lonely and encourage them to reach out to others.

People who received training in both self-monitoring and acceptance skills saw the greatest benefits. Loneliness went down by nearly 25 percent and their interactions with others increased.

Yes, screen time can contribute to isolation, but programs delivered by smartphone can also teach us to pay more attention to what's going on, including among those around us.

Staying Present, Keeping an Open Mind

“When we talk about mindfulness interventions, we talk about two key components,” J. David Creswell, associate professor of psychology, said in a statement. “The first is learning to use your attention to monitor your present-moment experiences, whether that's noting body sensations, thoughts or images. The second is about learning to adopt an attitude of acceptance toward those experiences — one of openness, curiosity and non-judgment.”

“Learning to be more accepting of your experience, even when it's difficult, can have carryover effects on your social relationships. When you are more accepting toward yourself, it opens you up to be more available to others,” Creswell adds.

It's called acceptance skills training, and it uses cell phones to deliver well-established mindfulness meditation techniques . Mindfulness training programs instruct participants to make a mental note of whatever sensations they experience while meditating — perhaps pain in a knee or ankle, or boredom — but not alter their state. People in the Carnegie Mellon study were taught to respond to these uncomfortable experiences by gently saying “yes” to keep an open and welcoming state of mind.

The Study
Over 150 adults were randomly assigned to one of three 14-day smartphone-based interventions. One group received training in monitoring and acceptance skills for 20 minutes each day. Another was given training in monitoring skills only; and a third group received no mindfulness training, but instead was taught common coping techniques. Each group was also told to do a brief homework practice lasting no more than 10 minutes every day.

People in the study completed periodic assessments throughout the day to measure how lonely they were and how much social contact they had for three days before and three days after the intervention. Those who received both training in monitoring and acceptance skills saw the greatest benefits. Their loneliness, as measured by the assessments, went down by 22 percent. They also expanded their reported social contact by an average of two interactions each day.

Use your attention to monitor your present-moment experiences, whether that's noting body sensations, thoughts or images. Then adopt an attitude of acceptance toward those experiences.

People who received monitoring mindfulness but no acceptance skills training did not show these improvements, suggesting that acceptance skills training may be a critical ingredient for the social benefits of mindfulness training programs.

“Loneliness and social isolation are among the most robust known risk factors for poor health and early death,” according to researcher Emily Lindsay. “But so far, few interventions have been effective for reducing loneliness and increasing social contact. Our research shows that a 14-day smartphone-based mindfulness program can target both, and that practice in welcoming and opening to all of our inner experiences — good or bad — is the key ingredient for these effects.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.