Are Smartphones Killing Our Conversation Quality?

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The mere presence of a smartphone is enough to drag down the quality of a face-to-face conversation, according to a new study.

In an initial observational study, researchers found that many coffee shop visitors sitting in pairs or in small groups checked their phones every 3 to 5 minutes, and usually held or placed their phones on the table in front of them. Intrigued, lead researcher Shalini Misra, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, designed a follow-up experiment to measure how the presence of phones influenced the quality of conversation.

Misra found that during conversations where someone pulled out a smartphone while talking, the participants rated the conversation as less fulfilling and felt less connected to their partner than in conversations where no one pulled out a phone.

"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," the research team, led by Misra, wrote in a paper published July 1 in the journal Environment and Behavior. "In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds." [Top Ten Disruptive Technologies]

It's old news in the 21st century that tech-related distractions steal attention from real people. Previous studies have shown that "cyber-based overload" makes people feel compelled to multitask and constantly check their phones, emails and social networks. People are also becoming more and more obsessed with cultivating horizontal relationships: vast networks of shallow relationships with people who are not present, with a smartphone acting as the portal, according to Misra.

The compulsion to check phones and the need to stay tied into the horizontal network can make people withdraw from the present, and it can create resentment among family and friends, Misra and her co-authors wrote.

To test how much influence smartphones have on social interactions, Misra and the research team divided 200 coffee shop visitors into pairs. They were assigned either a casual topic to discuss, such as their thoughts and feelings about plastic Christmas trees, or a more serious topic, such as the most meaningful events that happened in the past year.

A researcher then observed the participants during a 10-minute conversation about the given topic. The observers did not record the content of the conversation, but sat at a distance and recorded only if the participants pulled out a phone or set one on the table. The researchers report that someone pulled out a phone in 29 of the 100 groups.

After the conversation, the participants were asked to fill out a survey describing how close their relationship was, how close they felt to the other person during the conversation and how well they thought their partner understood them during the conversation.

In the conversations where someone pulled out a phone, the participants reported feeling less fulfilled and feeling less empathy for the other person. The results held true even after the researchers adjusted for the age, gender, ethnicity and mood of the participants.

Surprisingly, it did not matter if the coffee shop visitors discussed current events or plastic holiday trees: The topic of conversation did not influence whether or not the participants felt that they had a fulfilling conversation.

Further, Misra and the team found that phones affected close friends more than casual friends. In pairs of people who knew each other very well, the presence of a phone had an even bigger negative effect on the perceived quality of the conversation.

Misra wrote that part of the reason the presence of a phone can drag down a conversation is that when people are distracted by their phones, it's easier to miss subtle cues, such as changes in facial expression and changes in tone. When people are staring down at their phones, there is also much less eye contact. This can result in the participants feeling less connection to each other.

Next, Misra and the team hope to examine how the number of times people pick up their phone or look at it during a conversation affects the quality of the exchange.

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Kelly Dickerson
Staff Writer
Kelly Dickerson is a staff writer for Live Science and She regularly writes about physics, astronomy and environmental issues, as well as general science topics. Kelly is working on a Master of Arts degree at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and has a Bachelor of Science degree and Bachelor of Arts degree from Berry College. Kelly was a competitive swimmer for 13 years, and dabbles in skimboarding and long-distance running.