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Even Just the Presence of a Smartphone Lowers the Quality of In-Person Conversations

New research finds having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you're not actively looking at it.
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(Photo: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock)

"Staying connected" is the unspoken mantra of the smartphone generation. We now have the ability to instantaneously link up with nearly any information source, and tap into a live feed of what's happening in our social circle.

However, critics have long warned that this non-stop barrage of news and trivia is inevitably distracting, making it more difficult to maintain the focused attention necessary for truly meaningful communication.

Luddite nonsense? Actually, no. Newly published research suggests that the mere presence of a cell phone or smartphone can lessen the quality of an in-person conversation, lowering the amount of empathy that is exchanged between friends.

The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, confirms the findings of a 2013 lab-based study in a real-world setting. It suggests you don't have to be actively checking your phone for it to divide your attention.

"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies. In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds."

"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," a research team led by Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech University writes. "In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds."

"Even without active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections. Individuals are more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes in the tone of their conversation partner's voice, and have less eye contact."

The study's 200 participants were broken up into groups of two. Each couple was then assigned to sit down in a coffee shop and discuss either a meaningful topic or a trivial one. A nearby lab assistant noted their non-verbal behavior, and recorded "whether either participant placed any kind of mobile device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the 10-minute span" when they were talking.

Afterwards, participants responded to a series of statements designed to measure "feelings of interpersonal connectedness" and "empathic concern" they experienced during the brief chat. These included "I felt I could really trust my conversation partner" and "To what extent did you conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings?"

The key results: "If either participant placed a mobile communication device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the course of the 10-minute conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling, compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices," the researchers report.

"The same participants who conversed in the presence of mobile communication devices also reported experiencing lower empathetic concern, compared with participants who interacted without (the presence of) distracting digital stimuli." (All these results held true after controlling for such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.)

Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers found no significant differences in these results whether the couple was discussing serious or non-serious matters. Less surprising, they report the negative relationship between mobile devices and empathetic concern was more pronounced among people who already knew each other. It appears the empathy that naturally arises when talking with a friend can get short-circuited by the distracting presence of a phone.

Misra and her colleagues did not record how often participants touched or handled their mobile devices. While they see that as a promising avenue for further research, their study suggests you don't have to be actually fiddling with a phone for it to distract your focus.

"Networked technologies are distinctive in that they enable us to be in a persistent state of 'absent presence,'" the researchers write, adding that phones' "mere presence as environmental cues can distribute individuals' attention and guide the behavior of those who are nearby without their awareness."

So if you want to have a real, face-to-face conversation with a friend, here's a suggestion: Turn off your phone, and put it in your pocket. Ironically, the best way to make a real connection might be to live, however briefly, in a digital-free zone.