Commentary

Study Shows How Cell Phone Use Upsets Social Bonds

Suddenly awash in connected gadgets, our culture is struggling mightily to establish acceptable mobile-computing customs.

Distracted driving is thriving, and costing thousands of lives a year. And gadgets are mentally (and emotionally) distancing people who are actually within close physical confines.    

While the latter issue rarely has fatal consequences, it is seriously threatening relationships and social bonds, says Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research.

“This ‘always-on’ reality has disrupted long-standing social norms about when it is appropriate for people to shift their attention away from their physical conversations and interactions with others, and towards digital encounters with people and information that are enabled by their mobile phone,” Rainie explains in a new report.

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“These are issues with important social consequences,” according to Rainie. “Norms of etiquette are not just small-scale social niceties … They affect fundamental human interactions and the character of public spaces.”

According to Pew’s new findings -- which surveyed more than 3,000 U.S. adults -- 82% said phone use in social settings frequently or occasionally stifles the conversation.

But, to varying degrees, we all appear to be contributing to the problem. In fact, most people (89%) admit to using their phones during their most recent social gatherings.

That’s a massive problem considering that 92% of U.S. adults now have a cell phone, and, among them, 90% say their phone is always on hand, and 76% report never or rarely turning them off.

Defending their behavior, 33% of respondents believe that their phone use during social situations frequently or occasionally contributes to the conversation. Taking a group selfie, for example, or showing off some cute pet pics, can be socially beneficial, they say. 

Yet many others would beg to differ. A full 41% of women -- and 45% of women over age 50 -- say cell phones hurt social gatherings, while 32% of men agree.

While those around them are making eye contact, what are people doing on their devices?

According to Pew, 61% are reading a text or email; 58% are taking a photo or video; 52% are sending a message or text; 52% are receiving a call; 34% are checking to see if they received a mobile alert of some kind; 33% are placing a call; 29% are using an app; and 25% are browsing the Web.

Looking ahead, it’s nearly impossible to guess in what direction this trend will head. Most people seem just as offended by our increasing mobile addiction as they are themselves addicted.

From headsets to virtually screenless watches, gadget-makers are dreaming up ways to lift our collective gaze. Still, most tech companies and digital marketers remain laser-focused on getting people to spend ever more time staring into their phones. Increasing “engagement” is the name of the game.

Perhaps the cost to people’s real-world connections and interactions should be given more consideration.

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