On call

Is constant digital access changing more than how we communicate?

by Alexa C. Kurzius

Girl, phone in hand. A familiar sight. Credit: PictureYouth

Women talk a lot, at least according to gospel of “Sex and the City.” As a woman and a millennial, I have learned many of my life lessons from watching that show. From the clothes to the men to the cosmos, the four fictional besties typically got together for meals and gabbed about everything. It was the late ’90s and cell phones were just becoming en vogue, but rarely did I see one at their dinner table. Yet I have to wonder, now 15 years since show began: if Carrie were a) real and b) living in 2013, would she be texting and emailing her way through dinner?

Today, we engage in a stream of texts, emails, phone calls, Skype calls, Facebook alerts and more, all flowing through our smartphones at a near constant rate. Barely afloat, I spend a large part of my day immersed in responding to these messages. Yet I often wonder — is this communication inundation affecting the strength and quality of our interpersonal relationships?

Scientists are studying the behaviors and attitudes we have toward our smart phones. Some, like clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the book Alone Together, liken our cell phone to a phantom limb. “They say they can just sense it,” she says of teens and adults in her TED talk when she speaks about the widely reported phenomenon. “They feel their phones vibrating even when they are not,” she says. Other researchers are less convinced, although nearly everyone agrees that the advent of new communications technologies is changing the way we communicate.

I’m certainly not the only one who is attached to her cell phone. Almost half of American women own a smartphone, according to The Pew Internet and American Life Project. The organization published a report on women and men’s behaviors and attitudes towards their phones in late 2012.

Both sexes tended to use their phones equally as much, with almost one third of survey respondents referring to their cell as something they can’t imagine living without. Yet this constant communication stream often makes us feel as if we must be reachable at any time, for better or for worse. “My favorite data point,” says Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with the Project, is that the “best and worst” thing people identified about their cell phones was “other people.” Smartphone owners in particular were more likely “to say that their phone makes it harder to give people their undivided attention.”

Young women especially are phone-ophiles, as evident from another Pew report on teens and mobile use from 2010. Whether it’s texting, calling, or Internet surfing, teen girls are more active on their phones than teen boys. Older adolescent females, 14 to 17 years of age, text more than any other age group, sending and receiving around 100 a day. Comparing this behavior to phones calls, teen boys and girls make about five per day.

Accessibility is one issue but, more important, how does the constant presence of our cell phones affect the quality of communication? Researchers from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom recently tackled this question in their study inspired in part by Turkle’s work, as she has long studied the subjective relationship people have with technology.

In the Essex study, researchers randomly assigned two people to talk in a lab either when a cell phone was present or when it was absent. They were given conversation topics predetermined as either important (the most significant thing that happened in the past year) or unimportant (plastic holiday trees). Study participants then used rating scales to assess the levels of connectedness, closeness, trust, and empathy they felt towards their conversation partner.

When it came to unimportant conversations, the presence of the cell phone did not influence feelings of connectedness or closeness. However, for important conversations, people’s rating of trust and empathy towards their partners decreased when a cell phone was present. It “knocked the important conversations down to the level of unimportant,” says Andrew Przybylski, lead researcher for the study.

Although his after-the-fact speculations weren’t tested, Przybylski wonders if having the phone out “is priming people to think about other relationships they have.” If this kind of pattern holds up in the real world, he says, it’s because people invest a lot into their social lives and associate their wider social lives with their smart phones.

Having your cell phone close by is also priming us in a more physical, metabolic way, according to some research. In a 2011 study, investigators showed that the brain burned moderately higher levels of glucose, a sugar your brain uses for energy, when a cell phone next to the head was turned on compared to when it was turned off. “Somehow the cell phone is stimulating the neurons to consume more glucose,” says Dardo Tomasi, lead researcher of the study based out of Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Long Island. But “we don’t know if the cell phone is actually hurting or benefiting the brain,” he says.

The study used a dumb phone and Tomasi hopes to replicate the study, possibly with an iPhone. “Smartphones are much more powerful and likely to interact with our brains,” he says. “And everybody uses them.”

But what about the people right in front of us? What is the cell phone doing for conversation etiquette? Isn’t the constant presence of a phone just plain rude? “There is nothing more personal than an actual face-to-face meeting or a phone call,” says Jules Hirst, a California etiquette coach. The people you are with “deserve your attention and respect, not your phone.”

Etiquette isn’t the only concern when it comes to our cell phone habits. Turkle argues in her book that the time we spend trying to stay connected to our digital world makes us lonelier and inhibits us from establishing real-world connections. We use our online social networks, she writes, “to defend us against loneliness even as we use it to control the intensity of our communication.” In other words, we look to our networks to make us feel connected to other people, yet we are losing the ability to converse in person or over on a telephone call. Turkle begrudgingly texts, “in deference to a generation that sees my phone calls as constraining,” she writes in her book. And as someone who prefers yammering on the horn, I sometimes feel similarly.

Other researchers suggest that the time we spend communicating on our devices has a more benign effect. Tanya Goldhaber is a University of Cambridge PhD student who studies how people interact with communications technologies. Her Cambridge lab collaborated with UK broadband provider British Telecommunications to examine the cultural implications of increased use of communications technologies. “Contrary to conventional wisdom,” she says, the amount of “time you spend with technology wasn’t necessarily the predictor of how happy you will be in your life in general.”

The project focused on the UK, the United States, China, and Australia, with researchers interviewing around a dozen families in each country in semi-structured setting. A survey followed, given to around 1,000 people in each country. People who found a way to develop a “balanced relationship with technology” — meaning they felt in control and productive — rated themselves as having a higher state of well-being, Goldhaber says.

Maybe the issue then isn’t what all of this communication technology does to everyone, but rather what works for each person. “Whether it’s cell phones or anything else, we find people exist on a spectrum,” says Smith. There are super fans on one end who can’t get enough of their cell phone and those who don’t see the big deal on the other end, he says.

What’s positive about the panoply of communications media literally at our fingertips is that we can reach and be reached in the way that we prefer. We no longer have to rely on a single standard method. Goldhaber, for example, doesn’t much like talking on the phone. She mostly texts and doesn’t have Internet capability on her cell, though she does depend on frequent Skype calls to stay in touch with her family back in the United States. On the other hand, I’m a phone talker and like nothing more than to call my high-school best friend 400 miles away for a “phone date.”

Perhaps what matters most then is maintaining value in a good conversation when it does occur. Communications technology is changing at a rapid rate and will continue to change. “I don’t think we’re done incorporating it into our society yet,” says Goldhaber. But that doesn’t mean we have to only react and adapt to these changes. “There is time to make corrections,” Turkle writes in her book. She suggests finding a time and place for technology use and, more important, developing behaviors that maintain the intimacy of interpersonal relationships. So the next time you’re out to dinner with your girlfriends, maybe you want to channel “Sex and the City” circa 1998 and keep your phone out of sight.

Alexa C. Kurzius is a health and science writer living in New York City.

[Image credits: Girl with phone, credit PictureYouth, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license. iPhone image, via Wikimedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 unported license.]

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