Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Cell Phones are Changing Social Interaction

Breaking up by text message.

Would you break up by sending a text message? How much of your social life do you conduct through text messages? Do you schedule face-to-face time? Do you track where your friends are by texting? Do you have conversations with text messages?

Having a cell phone completely changed my social life. This is what my sons told me after we finally got them cell phones when they were in high school. I also have a cell phone, but don’t feel having it changed my social life. For my sons, however, the effect was dramatic. Cell phones may be changing how people interact with each other and changing their expectations for social interaction.

A recent set of research indicates that young people use their cell phones differently than older adults use their cell phones. We have this belief that young people are constantly using their cell phones – texting, checking email, searching the web, taking pictures, and tweeting. Supposedly, older people (people like me) use their cell phones less frequently. But there is actually very little data on differences in how age impacts cell phone use and beliefs about etiquette. With my colleague, Deborah Forgays, and one of our students, Jessie Schreiber, we’ve recently published an investigation on how people use their cell phones for social interaction and their beliefs about etiquette. The fun part is that we looked at people in different age groups (18-24; 25-34; 35-49; and 50-68).

First the obvious finding. Age relates to big differences in how many text messages people send and receive each day. Young adults rely on text messages but older adults send and receive substantially fewer texts. In the over 50 group, more that 80 percent send and receive fewer than 10 texts each day. But young adults are texting much more every day. Interestingly, we found no difference in the number of cell phone calls made and received. Nobody is making very many – over 90 percent in every age group made fewer than 10 calls each day. The age difference in cell phone use is in texting.

Young adults also use text messaging as their primary method of contacting friends – over 80 percent report texting as their preferred method. The percentage of people who use texting as their primary method of contacting friends drops in older age groups. Older adults (over age 50) prefer calling or email. Given the age difference in the number of texts, it shouldn’t be surprising that younger adults believe it is more appropriate to use their cell phones in a greater variety of situations than do older adults. We asked about a lot of contexts – having dinner with friends, in line at the store, in church, intimate situations, at the gym, having coffee with a friend. Across the board, younger adults saw text messaging as more acceptable than older adults.

So the quick message is that younger adults are texting in more situations, using it to contact friends, and see texting as acceptable.

This seems to be having an impact on their expectations in relationships. You’ve got to feed the beast in text interactions with young adults. Young adults expect quicker responses from friends than do older adults. By the way, we didn’t find any difference in how quickly people expect responses from romantic partners – everyone expects a response relatively quickly. So when you get a text from your partner, stop what you’re doing and respond. Oh, and if you are slow to respond to young adults, they will get irritated with you more quickly than older adults.

Young adults text more, use texts to contact friends, and expect quicker responses. Younger adults also use text messages for a variety of functions in romantic relationships. In particular, about 15 percent of young adults reported they had ended a relationship via text message and 25 percent reported they had been dumped via text. The percentage of text break ups dropped in older age groups and the over 50 crowd never reported text dumps. We’ve always known that breaking up is hard to do – so why not do it via text?

I think this may explain why young adults are so attached to their cell phones. This isn’t addiction. This is social interaction. When you conduct your social life via text, keeping track of your cell phone takes on particular importance. Older adults, like me, shouldn’t make judgments about cell phone use in younger adults, or at least we should withhold the negative evaluations of people constantly checking their cell phones. Perhaps instead we can respect the cell phone and internet natives. These young adults have grown up using cell phones and the internet. They’ve learned to effectively maintain and enhance (and sometimes end) social relationships through the ether. Maybe they will be more engaged with and attached to their social groups than older adults who are still learning to keep in touch in the modern era.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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