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Culture, Internet, Social Media

The iPhone effect: Social interactions and a constant state of “poly-consciousness”

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As smart devices have evolved and improved, their popularity has increased rapidly. According to a Pew Internet report, more than half of all adults in the United States owned a smartphone in 2013, a 21% increase from 2011.

The prevalence of smart devices introduces a wide array of concurrent activities into daily life, creating possibilities for personal efficiency and increased connection but also potentially leading to a culture of distraction. Multitasking has been shown to impact numerous cognitive abilities and tasks, including driving ability, memory and academic performance. What’s more, the proliferation of technology has changed the way in which many people socialize. Smart devices connect us to a wider network of friends and contacts, but these expanded networks may include more superficial relationships — “weak ties,” as network researchers say — rather than traditional, deeper ties.

Social scientists have long been studying the effects of mental overload and divided attention, as well as the phenomenon of wider, more dispersed social networks. Our digitally mediated world may seem to present novel problems, but research in this area is in fact an extension of a longstanding literature on these issues. (John Sweller’s 1988 paper on “cognitive load,” for example, has been cited thousands of times, while researchers such as Barry Wellman have been studying networks and societal change long before the Web’s rise.) Some of the newer research, such as that pioneered by Clifford Nass, has focused directly on the specific cognitive consequences of engaging with digital technology, while other scholars such as Sherry Turkle have examined social and personal implications.

A 2014 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices,” looks to integrate both the cognitive and sociological research strands relating to this issue. The authors — Shalini Misra, Jamie Genevie, and Miao Yuan of Virginia Tech and Lulu Cheng of Monsanto — examined the relationship between the presence of mobile devices during social interactions and the overall quality of those interactions. To do so, 100 pairs of individuals with an existing relationship were randomly assigned to discuss either trivial matters or a topic of significance for 10 minutes at a coffee shop or cafe, as they were observed from an unobtrusive distance. The authors then observed whether a mobile device was used, touched or placed on the table during the conversation. After 10 minutes, participants completed a brief survey to assess the degree of connectedness and empathetic concern that they felt during their interaction.

The study’s findings include:

  • Out of 100 pairs, 29 had mobile phones present during their conversations, while 71 did not. Overall, conversations without phones present were rated significantly better than those with phones present, controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and mood. Those who conversed without a mobile phone present reported a higher level of connectedness.
  • Those who conversed in the absence of a mobile device felt a greater level of empathy for their partner. Additionally, those pairs with a close relationship reported lower levels of empathy with a mobile device present as compared to pairs with a more casual relationship.
  • The study did not find any significant effect of mobile phones during more meaningful conversations, as compared to more casual encounters.

“Even when they are not in active use or buzzing, beeping, ringing, or flashing, [digital devices] are representative of people’s wider social network and a portal to an immense compendium of information,” the researchers note. “In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds. Their mere presence in a socio-physical milieu, therefore, has the potential to divide consciousness between the proximate and immediate setting and the physically distant and invisible networks and contexts. The permeable and fluid pervasive computing environments of our technological society and the array of behavioral demands they create thus dramatically change the socio-physical context of face-to-face communication. In these permeable and micro-fragmented contexts, we are in a constant state of poly-consciousness in which multiple relationships and settings can be the focus of one’s attention at any given time regardless of location or context.”

Related research: A 2014 research roundup “Multitasking, Social Media and Distraction,” examines various issues in this area.


Keywords: cognition, technology

    Writer: | Last updated: October 20, 2014

    Citation: Misra, Shalini; Cheng, Lulu; Genevie, Jamie; Yuan, Miao. “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.” Environment and Behavior, July 2014. doi: 10.1177/0013916514539755.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Continuing Higher Education Review article titled "The Tethered Self."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?