Mobile phones in social situations – is there really a problem?

The iPhone Effect: Shortly after one person in the group brings out their iPhone, the rest follow suit, ultimately ending all conversation and eye contact – Urban Dictionary 

The reason we started ‘Thrive with Digital’ was to stimulate discussion around the many positive ways digital media may be used to enhance the very things that make us human – having conversations, developing friendships, enjoying our amazing planet, sharing experiences.  We were looking to get away from the fashionable demonisation of screen-based media and the constant default to ‘digital detox’ as the only solution to any ‘digital problem’.

Yet, whenever a conversation starts around this subject, I’m surprised at how some people react: ‘Is there really a problem with mobiles?  Do they really do any harm?  I’m always in contact with my friends through my phone, so what’s the problem?’

So, is there a problem?  Are phones just another addition to the increasing array of personal accessories that we’ve accumulated over the decades – watches, pens, diaries, household media devices such as radio and television – and will they blend into our everyday life unnoticed before we know it?  Am I, after years of evangelising the use of digital media, actually at core a luddite?


Whether it is perceived as a problem or not, studies are suggesting that mobile phones are already impacting some fundamental ways in which we interact with each other in person.  One from 2014, ‘The iPhone Effect’, draws on previous studies and looks into the effect phones have on what might be loosely called the ‘quality’ of the time we spend with others in person:  how connected we feel; the quality of the conversation; how much we relate to that person and how empathetic we feel.  The results are fascinating and worth sharing.

Some of the statistics around typical behaviour are eye opening, but maybe not that surprising. A year-long observational study (Humphreys 2005) on mobile phone use in public places noted that people rarely ever used their phones to make a call. Most often, they seemed to play with their phones, checking to see if they were on or off, or checking for messages.

Another observational study (Misra & Genevie, 2013) of coffee shop customers found that groups checked their phones every 3-to-5 minutes regardless of whether they rang or buzzed. They often held their phones or placed them on the table in front of them.
Mobiles are even causing new syndromes.  More recent studies have found that a large percentage of individuals experience what has been termed  phantom vibration syndrome—perceived vibrations from a device that is not really vibrating (Drouin, Kaiser, & Miller, 2012; Y.-H. Lin, Lin, Li, Huang, & Chen, 2013).

Going beyond amusing reflections on the peculiarity of some of these behaviours, it is clear that whatever effect mobiles might be having on us, the sheer intensity and range of ways in which we use them means they can have a significant impact on how we relate to each other.

And this is where studies raises some fascinating issues, with what you may argue are quite worrying conclusions.   It has always been recognised that if someone picks up their phone in a social situation and starts using it, there will be a corresponding effect on the quality of conversation they have left and on the connection with the person they are no longer paying attention to.  It seems, however, that even just the sight of a mobile on a table  has a significant impact on both these factors, according to a  2013 laboratory experiment (Przybylski & Weinstein).

The mere presence of a phone placed innocuously in the visual field of participants was found to interfere with closeness, connection, and relationship quality.   The iPhone Effect study took these conclusions further,  testing them in real world situations such as cafes and coffee shops. The findings reinforced these conclusions.  If a person placed their mobile on the table or held it in their hand during the course of a conversation, the quality of the conversation noticeably decreased, and so did the level of empathy between the people speaking.

So, is there a problem?   There are, at the very least, certainly some areas to be concerned about. Use of mobiles in social situations is clearly widespread, and it’s common for people to be placing their mobiles on the table while they’re with others.   A reasonable conclusion might therefore be that a this happens, we are likely to be witnessing a decrease in the depth of conversations and in the connectedness and empathy traditionally found in places such as coffee shops and restaurants.  In a world where ‘well-being’ is seen as being as being directly driven by empathy and connectedness, many would say that is a problem.

So what’s the solution?  Unlike the threat posed to society and health by smoking, banning mobile phones is not a desirable option. Moreover, digital media has enormous potential to be a part of the solution.

Mobile reward schemes, for example, can be very effective.  How about a national coffee shop reward scheme for people dropping their phone into a ‘technology box’, perhaps supporting a charity?  Mobile media is an increasingly powerful education platform.

Can we use mobile media to drive an education program to teach people ‘good’ social phone practice?  New, fun mobile memes spread quickly – could ‘Sorry, I’m not available, I’m busy having a real conversation!’ messages work?  The digital industry prides itself on its creative and innovative strengths – it’s time to apply them to harness digital media to help us get more personal.


The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices – Shalini Misra1, Lulu Cheng2, Jamie Genevie1, and Miao Yuan3,  2014

Humphreys (2005) found in Misra & Genevie, 2013

Phantom vibrations amont undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics – Drouin, Kaiser, & Miller, 2012; Y.-H. Lin, Lin, Li, Huang, & Chen, 2013

Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile phone technology influences face-to-face conversation quality – Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013.

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