Interpersonal Communication: The Hidden Danger of Mobile Phones

There are many areas of study and career focus within the field of Communication(s). One popular realm is Interpersonal Communication, a strength of the Bryant graduate program. Here's an interesting cell phone research study that's relevant for all of us.

By now most of us have heard that certain of our cell phones can explode or catch on fire without warning. But even after trading in our combustible phone, we still may not be totally free from danger—relational danger, that is. A study by Interpersonal Communication researchers suggests that the mere presence of a cell phone when two people are having a conversation can have negative effects on their relationship.

Mobile phone phenomena have been studied extensively in the past twenty years. In terms of maintaining relationships, users have reported that their cell phones help them to stay close to family members and friends, express care and concern for others, and allow them to be constantly available. Of course it’s well known that using mobile phones negatively affects attention in situations like driving, or engaging in other activities that require any kind of mental presence.

Researchers Andrew Przbylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex, UK (“Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face to face conversation quality.", Journal of Social and Personal Relationships) wanted to know what happens to interpersonal conversations when a phone is simply in sight, but not actually in use. 

They recruited pairs of strangers to engage in conversation about what they called a “moderately intimate” topic, such as an interesting event that occurred to each of them over the past month. With some of the pairs, a cell phone was placed in plain sight in the room. With others, no phone. After the conversations they questioned their subjects. They found that the people with the phone in the room felt less close with each other, and reported a lower quality of relationship than the ones with no phone present.

Following this first trial, different conversation partners were then asked to discuss a more meaningful and personally relevant topic using the same experimental phone or no phone design. Upon debriefing, those with the phone reported more inhibition, less closeness and trust, and a reduced amount of empathy and understanding with each other.  There were more negative effects than in the first round, and they were more pronounced when the talk was more intimate. Incidentally, these results didn’t differ significantly by age or gender.

Why this happens was not discovered in this particular study.  But it was clear that the simple presence of a mobile communication device changes the way people behave toward each other, and may have the potential to disrupt the development of relationships between friends, parents and children, fellow workers, even potential romantic partners. 

You may want to think carefully next time someone says to you, “hey, how about if we put the phones away?”


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