Focus & Digital Balance

Blogging about Digital Detox and unplugging, customizing our connectivity, new technologies, distraction management, and a healthy lifestyle in our hyperconnected world

The detrimental effect of mobile phones on personal relationships

relationships - mobile phone distraction

We all know what it’s like to be distracted by our mobile phones. We’ve also all experienced what it’s like when the people around us are distracted by theirs. It’s no wonder that comic Charlene deGuzman’s timely video ‘I Forgot My Phone’ had 8 million views in its first week online, and now, just 9 months later, has amassed over 43 million views on YouTube. It’s an astute parody about a phoneless woman living in a hyperconnected world that’s both amusing and haunting in equal measure.

While spending time with the people she cares about, their supposedly shared experience is severed by mobile devices. Everyone around Charlene is more engaged with the digital realm than the physical one unfolding around them in real-time. Looking at the public’s reaction to the clip, it’s clear that it’s hit the zeitgeist’s nail on it’s figurative head. It captures a widespread uneasiness we all feel about our use of mobile technology and it’s effect on our social, psychological, and physical daily experience. What’s more, the message only reached us because it was a viral video (a symptom of the problem it documents) created by an entertainer whose work fundamentally relies on social media, and probably a large proportion of its 43 million views were watched on mobile phones. Ironic, and poignant.

A salient issue that the clip addresses is the extent to which mobile technology impacts our ‘live’ in-person interactions with others. But how much do we really know about this, from a scientific perspective? Despite a significant and varied body of work investigating the impact of mobile technology, comparatively little has been done in relation to face-to-face interactions. A pioneering paper in this field of research is “Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality” by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein. They carried out two experiments that evaluate “the idea that the presence of mobile communication technology may present a barrier to human interactions, especially when people are having meaningful conversations” (p. 239).

The mere presence of mobile phones- perhaps even outside our conscious awareness- can have a detrimental effect on our personal relationships when we’re discussing meaningful things.

The first experiment was set up in a room with two chairs, and a book on a nearby table. Participants (who did not know each other beforehand) were put into pairs and instructed to discuss “an interesting event that occurred [to them] over the past month”, which a pilot study found to be “a moderately intimate topic” (p. 239). Each pair of participants were assigned to one of two conditions: one in which there was a pocket notebook lying on the book on the table, and the other in which there was a mobile phone on the book. Placement of the mobile phone was found to be unobtrusive by funneled debriefing of the participants. The results of this first experiment showed that when the mobile phone was present, the pairs reported lower relationship quality and lower partner closeness.

The second experiment set out to investigate the hypothesis that “mobile phones would impede relational outcomes when partners are attempting to build an intimate connection and have less effect in casual conversation” (p. 241). In this experiment, they not only tested absent vs. present mobile phone conditions, but also casual vs. meaningful conversation conditions. In the casual conversation condition, participants were told to discuss their thoughts and opinions about plastic holiday trees, and those in the meaningful condition were asked to discuss the most meaningful event from the last year. When conversations were casual, mobile phone presence had no effect on relationship quality, partner trust, or perceived empathy. However, when conversations were meaningful and the mobile phone was present, pairs reported lower relationship quality, partner trust, and perceived empathy.

The results from these experiments indicate that the mere presence of mobile phones- perhaps even outside our conscious awareness- can have a detrimental effect on our personal relationships when we’re discussing meaningful things. Surely, it’s these kinds of conversations that matter most. Even with our phones in our pockets, or on a nearby table, let alone in our hands, something important is being lost- namely, our ability to develop human relationships. The researchers go on to point out, “[given] that the effects do not appear to depend on conscious awareness, it is possible that phones operate as a prime that activates implicit representations of wider social networks, which in turn crowd out face-to-face conversations” (p. 244). My phone might trigger unconscious thoughts about conversations and people who aren’t in the room with me. Perhaps heavy use of smartphones and apps like Facebook and WhatsApp exacerbate such an effect.

It is strange to think, this tool whose primary function is to bring people together- perhaps as a result of this function- is also responsible for keeping us apart. Striving for a world without mobile phones is unrealistic, but this idea that their very presence can remove you somewhat from your present social environment, and hinder your ability to form human relationships is certainly significant. Constant connectivity undoubtedly has it’s benefits, but there are evidently unintended consequences of our technology use that need to be examined and understood.