The iPhone Effect: Read, Weep and Wrap That Smart Device

Happy holidays from The Momma Data Institute Center for Distressing Social Media Research. Stop filling your Amazon shopping cart and texting your belated apologies for your absence at the neighbor's annual holiday open house. Yes, I know, you're really not feeling well and you're about to feel worst as there's now one less good reason to gift that smart phone this holiday season. 

It's an official phenomenon now - The iPhone Effect has entered the social science literature so that technological wonder is no longer simply a very generous and fragile present. It's much more, the subject of serious academic inquiry and a disruptor of social interaction. Researchers at Virginia Tech wondered whether the presence of a smart phone might impact human interaction and apparently weren't too distracted to find an answer. Brace yourselves, their findings do not provide a glowing, merry portrait. 

Somehow researchers convinced 100 pairs of people to participate in a study instead of casually enjoying a latte and chit-chat in a café. The duos had known each other prior to walking in to the café. These agreeable pairs were randomly assigned to discuss either a trivial topic or serious one for 10 minutes. Then the research assistant stood out of view and took notes. Here's how it went down:

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.
Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
Now this sounds like bad news for those of us in near proximity to a device let alone wrapping one up for our loved ones. The good news, the smart phone didn't seem to effect serious conversations. I say seem to effect because the researchers didn't manipulate the presence of a smart phone, they manipulated the seriousness of the chat. And I could question whether they really and truly manipulated that too as the researchers simply asked participants to discuss something serious or trivial. Actually controlling the subject matter would have been truly amazing and accomplished only by having another research assistant planted in the conversation. In any event, this is some interesting but speculative naturalistic evidence. 

Read the Shorenstein' report on the iPhone research. Also note that as noxious as the smart phone might prove, it might prevent people from self-harm. According to a recent University of Virginia study people of all ages including senior citizens (or at least research subjects) would rather receive electrical shocks than sit and do nothing, left to think, daydream or ponder the future of social media and the human race. So think of the smartphone, the tablets, the hand-held gaming devices as prevention for self-injury and the pernicious effects of thinking. 

Stick a bow on that. Cheers.

 The study: 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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