Replication study confirms: Mere presence of your smartphone harms your conversations

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Researchers from Virginia Tech and Monsanto have found the mere presence of a mobile device reduces the quality of face-to-face conversations. Their findings have been published in the journal Environment & Behavior.

“Mobile devices such as smartphones, cell phones, and tablets are social nuclei — symbols of individuals’ relational networks — diverting their attention and orienting their thoughts to other people and places outside the immediate spatial context,” lead researcher Shalini Misra and her colleagues wrote in the study.

The researchers found simply having a mobile device within view can harm social interactions. The presence of a mobile device during a face-to-face conversation made people feel less connected to one another. The presence of a mobile device also made people think the person they were talking with was making less of an effort to understand their thoughts and feelings.

A previous study conducted by researchers from the University of Essex found similar results. But the authors of the new study wanted to examine the effect of mobile devices in a natural setting. The previous research was conducted in a lab.

To replicate the previous study with a more naturalistic method, the researchers recruited participants directly from coffee shops and cafes in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Region. The participants — who were strangers — were grouped into pairs of two and then asked to sit down at a table in the cafe for a ten minute conversation. These participants were led to believe that the researchers were investigating the nature of social interactions in coffee shops.

As the participants talked, a research assistant observed them from a distance to record their non-verbal behavior. Of particular concern was whether the participants placed a mobile device on the table or held one in their hand.

Once the ten-minute conversation had concluded, the participants filled out a brief survey that measured how connected they felt to their conversational partner. The survey also asked if they thought their conversational partner was making an effort to understand their thoughts and feelings.

Of the 100 conversations the researchers observed, there was a mobile device present in 29 of them. Conversations in the absence of a mobile device were rated as superior to those in the presence of a mobile device, even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.

“If either participant placed a mobile communication device (e.g., smartphone or a cell phone) on the table or held it in their hand during the course of the 10-min conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices,” Misra and her colleagues explained.

“As virtual worlds increasingly permeate our place-based physical environments, we must question what their consequences will be for our personal and collective lives. As our appetite for technological progress continues, critical scrutiny of the social, psychological, and cultural implications is paramount.”