The Mere Presence of a Smartphone Affects Social Interactions


The mere presence of a smartphone can affect social interactions, according to a study recently published in Environment and Behavior. Most people could likely have predicted the results of this study, given the commonly recognized ubiquitous use of smartphones and level of irritation that occurs when one is trying to have a conversation but the other is always looking at their phone to check for texts or tweets. However, it is always nice to have a scientific study confirm the obvious.

The study was performed at Virginia Tech and Shilini Misra was the lead author. In this naturalistic field experiment, meaning not in the lab, two participants in the study were told sit in a coffee shop and to have a discussion with each other for 10 minutes. Participants were divided into two groups and one group was told to discuss a meaningful topic and the other group was told to discuss something trivial. An observer listened to the discussion and watched to see if either of them placed a smartphone on the table or held it in their hand during the discussion.

The conversations were judged for quality using a survey in which the participants gave responses to statements designed to measure feelings of empathy or interpersonal connectedness. The statements included “I felt I could really trust my partner” and did your partner “make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings.” The results showed that if either person in the discussion brought out their smartphone and held it in their hand or put it on the table, then the quality of the conversation was rated as less fulfilling. If neither of the people in a discussion pulled out their smartphone, then the conversation received a better rating. Age, gender, ethnicity and mood did not alter the results.

The seriousness of the topic did not matter in the results, however, whether the two people in the discussion already knew each other made a difference. The conversation received a more negative rating regarding empathy if one pulled out a phone and the two participants already knew each other. It should be noted here that the participants were not actually using the phone during the conversation but it was the mere presence of the phone that affected the social interactions.

People are now commonly talking about addictions to cell phones. It has only been a few years that a large percentage of people have smartphones rather than flip phones and the availability of wi-fi everywhere is also a recent phenomenon. Constant access to the internet is a very recent thing. However, it seems that as soon as it was possible to be addicted to phones and use of the internet, it happened to many. It has been reported that in classes where students are not forbidden to use phones, they cannot resist a few peeks during classtime, and in classes where phones are forbidden, students are getting up to go to the bathroom once or twice during a one hour session. Presumably the real urge is to check for texts. The study that showed even the mere presence of a phone affects social interactions could be seen as another bit of evidence that addictions to cell phones are real and a growing problem.

By Margaret Lutze

Environment and Behavior
Washington Post
Pacific Standard

One Response to "The Mere Presence of a Smartphone Affects Social Interactions"

  1. Tabitha Farrar   July 17, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    I wonder what the cumulative effect of this is over a lifetime. I actually consider myself lucky to have got to age 20 before having a mobile phone of any sort. Children being brought up with them present at the dinner table etc much have a really hard time at dinner parties.

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