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    How Cell Phones Are Killing Face-to-Face Interactions

    by Mark Glaser
    October 22, 2007

    i-936ae3d689f30a6b0c2db002e859da08-kids texting.jpg
    Whether you are dating someone, interviewing someone, or just meeting someone for the first time, there is a special quality about face-to-face interactions. You can catch the subtle tone in their voice, see their expression as it changes from sad to outraged, and you can look them in the eye to see if you trust them.

    So it’s unfortunate that real-life interactions are on the outs as cell phone conversations, texting, instant messaging and Facebook emails start to take up more of our time. For young people especially, having a cell phone or iPod in hand and at the ready is the default mode while walking the streets. That means much less chance of conversation with the people who populate their real lives.

    Last weekend I went back for a reunion of old friends at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia, located in the heartland of America. While wandering around campus, I noticed that just about every student had a cell phone out to read text messages or check voicemails as they walked around — whether they had friends nearby or not. What was once something you did in private or during downtime has now become an obsession. We all need to find out what else is going on at other locations, to the detriment of the current situation happening right there in front of us.

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    The unspoken subtext of checking text messages in front of friends is: “Somewhere else there is someone who I care about more than you. I want to know what they have to say more than what you have to say to me now.” The idea of being present in the moment is disappearing faster than you can say, “Hey, I’ve got to take this call…” We devalue our current situation, the friends and family around us, our surroundings and setting, for something going on somewhere else.

    Last year when I visited London, I noticed an acute case of what I call gadget haze, with so many hipster urbanites connected at all times to smart phones or MP3 players. When I got lost, I asked a woman if I was near SoHo, and it took a moment for her to realize that someone real in front of her was actually talking to her. Slowly, she removed herself from her bubble, took off her headset, asked me to repeat what I said. Eventually she pointed me in the right direction and put the headset back on.

    What amazed me was the delay between the time I asked my question and her reply. It was almost as though I was talking to her in a foreign language. She had to take a moment to come out of her reverie, to literally come back to the present moment and the place where she stood to talk to someone right in front of her. With ever more immersive experiences on mobile devices — from music to TV to games — I wonder whether the gadget haze will grow thicker and thicker, making it even more difficult for others to break through.

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    Killing Time, Killing the Moment

    Of course, I am not anti-technology and am in awe of the iPhone just like the next gadget freak. But when my friend chooses to tap on his iPhone while we are out having dinner, I feel like I’m having dinner for three: me, him and the iPhone. We often joke about his techno-habit and how hard it is to break, but the joke gets old when it becomes reality.

    In many cases, having a cell phone around can be a huge help. In emergencies, you can call the police or a friend quickly. If you’re running late, you can tell someone where you are. And having an iPod or MP3 player is great when you’re out exercising or if you have a long cross-country flight.

    The problem is that despite all our raging against bad cell phone habits, they persist unabated. People talk on cell phones out at restaurants, they text while driving, and there’s even a push to bring safe cell phone calling onto airplanes at all times. It might be safe for the pilot, but not for the rest of us stuck next to people gabbing on their phones endlessly for entire flights. You just know it will happen. Crying babies, by comparison, will start to sound like the London Symphony Orchestra.

    When I went back to my old college, I met up with a friend about my age (i.e. well removed from college age) and we chatted about the overuse of cell phones.

    “Even people my age are addicted to them,” he said. “I try not to have them on me at all. I just don’t like the idea of people being able to contact me wherever I go. I’d rather be with the people around me than worry about who’s going to call me, who I need to call back and all that. It’s really a sad state of our society to see so many people tied down to their cell phones.”

    Indeed. There have even been studies showing that cell phones are causing the same problems as other addictive behavior. According to a University of Florida news story, a Japanese study found that children with cell phones often won’t make friends with other children who don’t have cell phones. Plus, a British study of college students found that 7% of students had lost a relationship or job due to cell phone usage.

    That’s a warning sign that we as a society are giving in to our electronic tether, our techno-fetishes, and putting more faith in them than in our own real-world concerns. I wonder whether more electronic communication will mean less face-to-face conversations, and we’ll have generations of people who are more comfortable texting their friends than talking to them in person. Or perhaps they will prefer to sit around and listen to their own iPods separately rather than having the shared experience of hearing music on a stereo system.

    About the only counterbalance to our techno-obsession is the growing trend of public places such as libraries and restaurants that ban or block cell phone usage. I’ve also heard of plenty of weekend retreats that require people to leave cell phones off or at home. It shouldn’t take long before these technology-free zones become popular oases for a public that’s drifting more and more into a gadget haze.

    What do you think? Are we as a society becoming obsessed with cell phones, texting and portable MP3 players? Is that a good or bad thing and what’s the best way you find to balance tech usage and unplugging? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Photo of youths using cell phones in Rome by Aidan McMichael via Flickr.

    UPDATE: Cynthia Brumfield describes her own gadget haze in a great post on IP Democracy. She was plugged into her iPhone on a recent flight and had no memory of what happened around her for hours and hours:

    Then it hit me: being constantly connected to gadgets is akin to what psychologists called a dissociative disorder. Dissociation generally means not being connected and in its extreme form is the hallmark of true mental illness…Based on my recent experience, [I wonder] if we’re all making ourselves slightly mentally ill by tuning in and dropping out (and not in the good ’60s kind of way either).

    Others were quick to counter that technology has actually made us more connected to people rather than just disconnected with our present situation. Kimon Keramidas said the idea of cell phones destroying face-to-face interactions was a bit of “techno-reactionism,” while Terry Heatons says that, “If we’re going to be a connected culture, then we have to respect that our need for the absolute attention of our dinner date is self-serving and probably always has been.”

    Perhaps, but I also wonder what the long-term effects will be of devaluing our current situation, our current surroundings and the people we spend time with in person. Personally, I don’t long to be in the company of people who are constantly connected to someone else. And it’s not just talking to other people on cell phones. Smart phones allow people to be connected to the Internet for sports scores, news and weather updates — all at your fingertips no matter what your social situation.

    Tagged: cellphones modern life personal texting
    • Mark: Resident as you are in SF, I’d recommend you find a bar (I always liked the LatAm Club but I’m probably out of date) and sponsor a No Freaking Cell Phone night. All night, no cells, no PDAs, no laptops, no iPods, no…Dick Tracy two-way watches, nothing. They can’t even be brought into the place. Any exceptions to the rule and you’re out. Permanently. I bet it’d be a very popular night indeed. Hey, you know what you could do? Talk. (Or at least scream over the music.)

    • Mark,

      Your piece really hit home with me. See http://tinyurl.com/2nk8ry

    • Kimon Keramidas

      I often see pieces like this while surfing the web as well as from some students in a class I teach in digital information fluency. Now while I believe there is some merit to the claim, I also believe that the debate about cell phones destroying our face to face society is a bit of techno-reactionism. The fact of the matter is that technology has increased our amount of connection to others on all fronts, with the cell phone being probably the most responsible gadget. When I hear these conversation I wonder what the net gain in face to face time actually is, as we probably are more able to see each other face to face because it is easier to get a hold of someone when there is a free moment then the old days of land lines and letters. While a lot of time is spent with mediated communication (which is not inherently bad after all) there are also more opportunities to meet at a bar on the spur of the moment, or have dinner with someone you thought was far away from you but really is just a few blocks or neighborhoods away. I think a lot of this comes down to basic etiquette and social trends. Any friend who is on the phone while at dinner with you probably has social issues that extend beyond the simple fact of owning a cell phone, and the dynamic of children spurning students who don’t own cell phones seems similar to clique forming that has been happening on playgrounds since the beginning of time. And as far as the woman who gave the directions. She did give them to you after all, and perhaps your frustration with the delay has more to do with the immediacy of information that technology provides as much as newly developing social conditions. I think that the generosity of a stranger should probably not be a conditional character trait.

    • I agree with Kimon, Mark. Connectivity has greatly improved and enhanced my relationship with those close to me, not the other way around. If we’re going to be a connected culture, then we have to respect that our need for the absolute attention of our dinner date is self-serving and probably always has been. I think there’s certainly a line between acceptable and rude, but cellphones and PDAs didn’t invent rude behavior.

      So I think what’s coming down-the-pike are new cultural definitions and rules of civilized behaviour — new social conventions driven by the need to be connected. We can wax nostalgic for the slower pace of earlier times, but those “good old days” had their problems, too.

      Thanks for the morning think.

    • Marianaria

      I agree with the implied message that “the caller is more important than you, the person I am with.”

      It doesn’t require a cell phone: I have a friend with call waiting on a landline, who puts me on hold whenever there’s a call, to see who it is. She doesn’t work, and has no family members with serious illnesses, so it wouldn’t hurt anyone if she could finish a conversation with me.

    • I agree with you, Mark. I believe in the power of grounding yourself in the present moment. Being on a device that gives you the false sense of connecting with someone who isn’t there is fundamentally disorienting. We’ve all had the experience of getting so sucked into email or the web or a phone call that we “blank,” essentially, and have a moment of needing to reorient ourselves to our physical surroundings. Certainly, when you can’t be with someone in person, a phone call or email exchange is better than nothing, but it’s fundamentally different than real, in-person interaction and, I would argue, an emptier experience. To me, gadgets are about speeding information exchange, not aiding in human connection. There’s a difference.

    • I’m a librarian at a correctional facility. I am glad that for the 8 hours a day I’m at work there are no cellphones (against the rules. When offenders get shold of them they use get used for gang and drug business).

      I’m glad to have a cellphone for emergencies when driving or am otherwise out and about. Recently we got voicemail on our phones. I hate it. I am in and out of my office constantly and when i return there’s the blinking red light. Usually it ends up being nothing important. By contrast, I love our intranet. You can leave word without interrupting and can expect a reply. Out of Office Auto reply is good too. Cell phones have helped destroy public space and killed conversations starting up.

    • It’s a hybrid world. We need to be facile in boththe digital and the analog. But being uncomfortable and/or uninterested in human synchronistic interaction precludes us from that which enriches our lives. And, according to the medical research, keeps our brains active and our social interactions keep us healthy.

    • When those who live more analog lives, worry about the digitally addicated who avoid face to face interactions, we are often dismissed. Coming from you, Mark, drives the point home.

      Do we really want the next generation to hang out with their cell phones, not being able to hold interesting, exploratory conversations? I think not. Do we want our circle of family and friends doing that?
      No.

      We do need to be comfortable with technology and benefit from it’s advantages. We also need to interact face to face so that we can understand social cues, context and have a life of realtime friends.

      Thanks for a heartfelt, sensible and eloquent column and “wake up call”.

    • When those who live more analog lives, worry about the digitally addicated who avoid face to face interactions, we are often dismissed. Coming from you, Mark, drives the point home.

      Do we really want the next generation to hang out with their cell phones, not being able to hold interesting, exploratory conversations? I think not. Do we want our circle of family and friends doing that?
      No.

      We do need to be comfortable with technology and benefit from it’s advantages. We also need to interact face to face so that we can understand social cues, context and have a life of realtime friends.

      Thanks for a heartfelt, sensible and eloquent column and “wake up call”.

    • Shelley

      Mark,
      After seeing you on TV I thought I’d pay another trip to this website. I couldn’t resist reading this article when I saw the title. What great insight on the issue. Much of what you say is so very true. Thanks for the smile.

    • I think there might be some merit to the cultural consequences of text communication over speech, especially face-to-face speech. Without the cues of nonverbal communication and inflection, misinterpretation is so much more likely.

    • Aigner

      hi, i found this very interesting for the fact that im doing a reaserch paper ont this.

    • Jeanne

      I agree that cell phones are helping people keep in touch with family and friends, but some people who grow up communicating electronically seem challenged with speaking professionally when entering the working world. Inability to give good eye contact, ineffective listening skills, lack of persuasive speaking ability, and a general low command over the English language are sadly becoming more common. It also seems that there is a preference to communicate via email instead of speaking face to face or in front of an audience in all age groups. Maybe this is the wave of the future, but strong speaking skills will always be valued in the corporate world.

    • Alex aguirre

      Hi Mark,

      You have been ahead of the curb on this one. I think it has become more prominent since your initial post. I woke up last night in a terror that we are losing our humanity and becoming more robotic in our interactions.

      I am in the process of starting a movement or revolt per se. Would love your feedback

    • Steven Koshin

      I think the scene in Wall-E where the 2 humans are disconnected from their chairs and realize what’s really around them is a perfect example of Cynthia Brumfield’s Dissociation observation.

    • 陈冠廷

      Never mind

    • jessied

      This written six years ago continues to ring alarm bells for modern family and society. I think it’s gotten worse since this article was written. I find myself dismayed by the fact that my niece and nephew can’t pull themselves away long enough to enjoy moments like Christmas with the family. Now that our family no longer lives close together, they don’t even bother to say thank you or merry Christmas to family members let alone happy birthday. However, when their day arrives they have the expectations of gifts, phone calls, Facebook messages. Really sad! I find some comfort in knowing I’m raising my daughter to remember those important in her life and to put down the electronics to enjoy family time.

    • dahszil

      I walked into a chain bookstore/coffee shop. Everyone seemed to be talking on their mobile devices or eyes in tunnel vision on their pads and laptops. wtf, what happened to interaction with the greater society, talking to strangers? I could swear 2 people where on there cellphones talking to each other across the room! In the 70’s to mid 1990’s you would easily strike up a conversation with anyone. Some of the best conversations I have had were with strangers. I quess “two ships that pass in the night” doesn’t exist anymore…sigh. I feel that society is becoming so insular and this is leading to the rise of totalitarianism in the USA. when people do get out in the streets in protest the police crush it as happened to ows and 99% protests several years ago, as if we we’re living in the old USSR.
      You see these protests in foreign countries go on and on until something happens. indeed either for good or for the worse. i would take the chance regards the latter. but the us police state has become so militarized and oppressive, its too late. i only see our only hope for getting back our republic and democracy(and ending us imperialism) is a revolt from within the structures of power…sigh…and much help from the socially conscious geeks(e.g. wikileeks, anonymous, and good socially conscisous hackers elsewhere)

      • dahszil

        “2 ships that pass in the night”, even from foreign countries communicate with each other. the analogy is two strangers in society no longer communicate with each other, not nearly as much as use to be back in dah day…sigh

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    • Brandon

      no one in class talks anymore, they just take out their phones and im the only one that doesnt. So sad

    • Mappyman

      Nice article. I grew up in the 90’s where beepers became banned for their annoying buzz sounds during class. I can’t even imagine the ban of cell phone use with the tween generation. Today I will keep my phone on silent, and disable any social media alerts. Texts and phone calls, sure, thats what a phone is used for. Anything else I try to keep specifically for computer usage.

    • gest

      cells do change us. I see people driving and texting on the phone. or kids on there way to school crossing the street texting and not paying attention. now we need a lot less technology in this world. it has effected face to face conversations, it effects the eye sight or gives you head pain, this is why we need less technology.

    • John R.

      Cancer couldn’t have happened to a better guy- Mr. jobs

      • Elizabeth May

        I’m sorry, but that, no matter your opinion on cell phones, is a terrible thing to say,

      • Phalana

        There is no reason to drag a great soul into your muddy thoughts.

    • James Branson Jr

      I agree full heartily. I mean, I used to be one of those kids in high school, the one without the phone. I swore I would never get caught up in that mess, but then I get my first phone at graduation, and im just like the rest. I can’t put it down. ITs addicting. I don’t remember the last time I saw any of my old friends. heck, I don’t know the last time I saw my neighbors! This is a real problem, and its still escalating. Something has to be done before it really is too late.

    • Stephanie Brown

      I am in high school and I noticed this happening in about junior high. People would rather look at there phones then at the people around them, and sometimes would seem almost confused when you did manage to pull them away from there phones.

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    • laoshir

      One word: Discipline.

    • laoshir

      I went to a favorite restaurant and noticed families, that is right “familes” with their mfaces stuck in their cell phones. A perfect example of quality family time in the 1st century.

    • Marco Böhm

      I know this is an old article, but just let me add that I agree with you on everything. But I noticed that when I’m at a club or at a bar I almost see none of this behaviour, I pay attention to it and it is very little. People still realize when it is inappropriate to stare at their phones and in highly social situations I think many don’t use it at all.

    • Brew Slain

      omg, almost everyone here is typing laying down a comment with great grammer and using the shit key, what is this madness!? :D

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