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

Posted on by Brandon Klein

“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.