By Elena Weissmann
It’s a busy crosswalk. Cars are rushing by and pedestrians are hurrying across the street—except for one. A middle-aged woman stands in the middle of the road, selfie stick out, presumably snapping a pic with some bright orange traffic cones. If the scene hadn’t been so comical, I probably would’ve started crying. Has our society become so self-obsessed and engrossed by technology that people can’t even cross the street without whipping out their iPhones?
We see these little, glowing electronic blocks everywhere—in restaurants, on the subway, in the airport. While some people are constantly checking text messages and work emails, others are posting mundane images of their pets (“look at Sparky’s new leash! #bark”) on social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook.
Besides the blatant narcissism and negative self-comparison that goes hand-in-hand with selfies and newsfeeds, research suggests that smartphones may also decrease our trust in one another, lower the quality of our relationships, and degrade the quality of our conversations.
In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers found that the mere presence of a mobile phone is enough to diminish relationship quality. Strangers engaged in a brief conversation about interesting personal events that occurred in the prior month with a nondescript mobile phone either present (resting on a book nearby) or absent (replaced by a pocket notebook). Participants in the presence of a phone reported lower relationship quality with their conversational partner than those in the phone absent condition, as measured using a seven-item version of the connectedness subscale of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory. They also perceived less empathy from their partner and trusted them less.
Why? Lara Srivastava, an economic and policy advisor at the International Telecommunications Union and the author of several phone-related studies, hypothesizes that because mobile phones make a wide-ranging social network immediately accessible to the individual, they divert attention away from a presently occurring human interaction. This lack of attention may also signal a lack of interest and empathy.
Shalini Misra, an Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, conducted a study with similar results: When phones were absent, individuals reported superior conversations. “The theory is that these phones are not just technologies—they’re not like televisions or radios,” Misra explains. “The fact that you can carry them around with you makes them a symbol of your relationships. When they’re close to you, your distant relationships might take precedent over your present one.”
We have all experienced moments when we are trying to connect with people, either close friends or absolute strangers, and the iPhone comes out. They start texting or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, and you feel compelled to do the same. Now you’re in your own virtual bubble, your face lit not by the joy of a pleasant conversation but by the glow of your phone.
Whether it’s a parent checking work emails in front of her 5-year-old or a college student scrolling through Pinterest while chatting with a friend, it all boils down to the same message: You’re not too interested in that person, and they certainly don’t require your full attention.
"Become more conscious, more aware of what is happening to your behavior when your phone is with you,” Misra advises. “We blame technology for coming in and changing or diminishing our relationships, but maybe people should question why they want to escape into these little bits of distraction.”
Elena Weissmann is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.