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Journal of Social and Personal
Relationships
http://spr.sagepub.com/
Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication
technology influences face-to-face conversation quality
Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships published online 19 July 2012
DOI: 10.1177/0265407512453827
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JSPR
Article
Can you connect with
me now? How the
presence of mobile
communication
technology influences
face-to-face
conversation quality
Journal of Social and
Personal Relationships
1–10
ª The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/0265407512453827
spr.sagepub.com
Andrew K. Przybylski
Netta Weinstein
University of Essex, UK
Abstract
Recent advancements in communication technology have enabled billions of people to
connect over great distances using mobile phones, yet little is known about how the
frequent presence of these devices in social settings influences face-to-face interactions.
In two experiments, we evaluated the extent to which the mere presence of mobile
communication devices shape relationship quality in dyadic settings. In both, we found
evidence they can have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation
quality. These results demonstrate that the presence of mobile phones can interfere with
human relationships, an effect that is most clear when individuals are discussing personally meaningful topics.
Keywords
Closeness, connection, conversation quality, face-to-face interactions, mobile phones,
relationship quality
Corresponding author:
Andrew K. Przybylski, Department of Psychology, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ,
UK.
Email: aprzyby@essex.ac.uk
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2
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
Recent advancements in communication technology have enabled billions of people in
the developed and developing world to connect with others using mobile phones
(Mieczakowski, Goldhaber, & Clarkson, 2011). The widespread availability and use of
mobile phones mean that these devices are commonly present in public and private
settings and during casual and intimate interactions, often as subtle background objects.
Despite their ubiquity, it is not known how the presence of mobile communication
technology influences face-to-face interactions. The present paper empirically explores
this issue for the first time and examines the effects of merely having a mobile phone
present during in-person conversations.
Psychological research on phone use broadly suggests that it is often aimed as a
source of entertainment and a means for sociability (O’Keefe & Sulanowski, 1995), and
indicates the use of phones is largely a way to feel closer with family members, to
express care for others, and to be available to others (Leung & Wei, 2000). Despite the
fact that people seem attracted to mobile phones as a means to interpersonal closeness,
little psychological research to date has systematically investigated the actual influence
these devices have in or outside the context of relationships. Instead, the thrust of
research in this area has examined effects mobile communication technology has on
attention. Specifically, this research indicates that use of mobile phones can reduce the
quality of attention to real-world events such as operating motor vehicles (Strayer,
Drews, & Johnston, 2003; Strayer & Johnston, 2001).
Most research focusing on mobile phones and relationships suggests they have the
potential to influence a range of interpersonal processes. Interviews reveal mobile
phones provide a continual sense of connection to the wider social world—a feeling that
persists even if a mobile is in ‘‘silent mode’’ (Plant, 2000). Indeed, the presence of
phones is often felt during intimate social outings. As an example, Geser (2002) observes
that a significant portion of couples eating together repeatedly interrupt their meals to
check for text or voice messages. In reviewing a wide range of survey data, Srivastava
(2005) concluded mobile phones might exert these pervasive influences because people
associate phones with wide-ranging social networks. The presence of a mobile phone
may orient individuals to thinking of other people and events outside their immediate social
context. In doing so, they divert attention away from a presently occurring interpersonal
experience to focus on a multitude of other concerns and interests.
In line with this, a number of prominent theorists have argued that mobile communication technology can have a decidedly negative influence on interpersonal relationships (Turkle, 2011). Turkle cites a wide range of qualitative evidence collected in
interviews that phones can direct attention away from face-to-face conversations by
making concerns about maintaining wider social networks salient. Taken together with
quantitative research that demonstrates environmental cues can activate relational
schema and affect behavior without a person’s awareness (Shah, 2003), there is reason
to believe that merely having a phone at hand may degrade firsthand social interactions.
Effects such as these would be apparent when partners attempt to engage one another
in a meaningful way. Particularly when strangers are interacting, a superficial conversation may do little to foster closeness and trust in the relationship. On the other hand,
dyads engaged in a meaningful conversation may develop their relationship as they
become better acquainted with one another and self-disclose relevant and personal
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Przybylski and Weinstein
3
information (Aron, Melinat, Aron, Vallone, & Bator, 1997). In these cases, the presence
of a diverting influence such as a mobile phone may inhibit relationship formation by
reducing individuals’ engagement and attention for their partners, and discouraging partners’ perceptions that any self-disclosure had been met with care and empathy. Indeed,
such an impediment to relationship formation may be frustrating and isolating. To test
this idea, we investigated the degree to which the presence of mobile communication
technology influences the quality of human interactions across different kinds of
conversations.
Present studies
In the present research, we evaluated the idea that the presence of mobile communication
technology may present a barrier to human interactions, especially when people are
having meaningful conversations. To investigate this, we conducted two experiments in
which pairs of strangers engaged in a brief relationship formation task, adapted from
previous research (Aron et al., 1997). We also manipulated the innocuous presence
versus absence of a mobile phone in the laboratory room. The first experiment examined
the general effects of mobile phone presence on relational processes, and the second
experiment investigated these dynamics for people having casual and meaningful
interactions.
Experiment 1
Participants and procedure
Seventy-four participants (26 women; M age ¼ 21.88, SD ¼ 4.81) were randomly
assigned to one of two conditions: (a) phone absent or (b) phone present. For those
assigned to the phone present condition, a nondescript mobile phone rested on a book,
which was placed on a nearby desk outside participants’ direct visual field. In the phone
absent condition, a pocket notebook replaced the phone (see Figure 1). We used a relationship formation task adapted from previous research (Aron et al., 1997), which was
meant to emulate the content of many real-life conversations. A pilot study indicated that
the assigned conversation, ‘‘Discuss an interesting event that occurred to you over the
past month,’’ was a moderately intimate topic. Participants left personal belongings in
a common waiting area before being led to a private booth along with a randomly
assigned partner. Dyads were then asked to spend 10 minutes discussing the topic
together. Following this encounter, participants completed measures used in previous
research to assess relationship quality over time (Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan,
2000) and emotional sensitivity in both committed and newly formed relationships
(Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992). Funneled debriefing of participants in both experiments
indicated mobile phone placement was unobtrusive.
Measures
Relationship quality. Relationship quality was measured using a seven-item version of the
connectedness subscale of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (McAuley, Duncan, &
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4
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
Figure 1. Overhead view of lab room. 1. Mobile phone or pocket notebook. 2. Book on desk.
3. Chairs used by participants.
Tammen, 1987), and included items such as ‘‘It is likely that my partner and I could
become friends if we interacted a lot’’ (M ¼ 2.78, SD ¼ 0.79, a ¼ .85).
Partner closeness. Closeness between participants was measured using the Inclusion of
Other in the Self Scale (Aron et al., 1992), which instructed participants to select one of
seven increasingly overlapping circle pairs representing themselves and their conversation
partner. (In the present study, participants responding averaged: M ¼ 3.57, SD ¼ 1.46.)
Covariate: Positive affect. Positive and negative affect was assessed using the nine-item
Emmons Mood Indicator (Diener & Emmons, 1984) to account for the potential confounding effect of overall positive mood on relational outcomes. Items included pleased,
worried/anxious, and frustrated (a ¼ .83), paired with a seven-point Likert-type scale
ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely).
Results
Data analytic strategy. Analyses required accommodations for nesting persons within
dyads (assuming nonindependence between the two interacting partners). Analyses were
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Przybylski and Weinstein
5
therefore conducted with hierarchical linear modeling (HLM; Raudenbush & Bryk,
2002). Condition (1: phone present, -1: phone absent) was defined at level 2 (dyad level),
while covariates (gender, age, and positive affect) were defined at level 1 (person level).
Unconditional models were first assessed to determine whether sufficient variance
existed between- and within-dyad. Intraclass correlation (ICC) derived from these
models showed that across outcomes, 43% to 51% of the total variance occurred between
persons. Given the substantial variance accounted for at each level, full models were
tested. Across analyses, the general level 1 equation was as follows:
OV ij ¼ Boj þ B1 X 1ij þ B2 X 2ij þ B3 X 3ij þ eij
where Boj reflects the average value of the relational outcome, B1 reflects the estimated
population slope of gender, B2 reflects that of age, B3 reflects that of positive affect, and
eij represents level 1 error.
The level 2 equation was:
Boj ¼Goo þG01 X1j þu0j
where Goo reflects the person level intercept for an average person and G01 refers to the
effect of the phone condition. As Raudenbush & Bryk (2002) recommended, level 1
variables were centered on individual rather than sample means; level 2 variables were
not centered.
Relationship quality. At level 1, positive affect related to better relationship quality,
b ¼ 0.80, t(69) ¼ 2.99, p < .001, though there were no effects of either gender, b ¼ 20, t(69) ¼ 0.61, p ¼ .55, or age, b ¼ 0.04, t(69) ¼ -0.03, p ¼ .12. Controlling for these, individuals in the mobile phone condition reported lower relationship quality after the interaction, b ¼ 0.99, t(35) ¼ 3.08, p ¼ .004. Partner closeness. Results for perceived closeness with one’s partner were largely consistent with relationship quality. None of the level 1 predictors related to perceived closeness with one’s partner, bs ¼ 0.00 to .09, ts(69) ¼ 0.06 to 0.64, ps ¼ .52 to .95. Yet at level 2, those in the mobile phone condition reported less closeness with their partners, b ¼ 0.39, t(35) ¼ 2.56, p ¼ .02. Experiment 2 Experiment 1 found that dyadic partners who got to know one another in the presence of a mobile phone (via sharing a moderately meaningful discussion) felt less close with their partners and reported a lower quality of relationships than did partners who shared a conversation without a mobile phone present. Experiment 2 explored which relational contexts mobile phones most mattered by manipulating the content of discussion to be either casual or meaningful. We hypothesized mobile phones would impede relational outcomes when partners are attempting to build an intimate connection and have less effect in casual conversation, where little self-disclosure takes place. In addition, this second experiment explored two new relational outcomes that have been shown as important Downloaded from spr.sagepub.com by guest on May 26, 2013 6 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships indicators for building intimate relationships: interpersonal trust (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Rubin, 2010) and perceived partner empathy (Reis, Clark, & Holmes, 2004). Participants and procedure Sixty-eight participants (43 women; M age ¼ 23.21, SD ¼ 4.99) were randomly assigned to one of the cells of a 2 (absent vs. present phone)  2 (casual vs. meaningful conversation) between-subjects design. A modified version of the 10-minute relationship formation task from Experiment 1 was used for all 34 dyads. Participants in the casual conversation condition were instructed to discuss their thoughts and feelings about plastic holiday trees (casual condition); those assigned to the important conversation condition discussed the most meaningful events of the past year (meaningful condition). Measures To examine a more diverse set of relational outcomes that included processes indicative of intimate relationships, relationship quality was assessed in the same way as in Experiment 1 (M ¼ 4.98, SD ¼ 1.09, a ¼ .86) but was paired with two additional measures of relational functioning: trust and empathy. Partner trust. Trust was assessed with an item asking participants to rate their agreement to the statement: ‘‘I felt like I could really trust my conversation partner’’ (M ¼ 3.25, SD ¼ 1.01). Partner empathy. Empathy was measured with the nine-item Empathic Concern Scale (Davis, 1995), which included items such as: ‘‘To what extent do you think your partner accurately understood your thoughts and feelings about the topic?’’ (M ¼ 4.98, SD ¼ 1.09, a ¼ .92). Results Analytic strategy. HLM analyses were conducted as in Experiment 1, although in the present study, phone manipulation (1: phone present, -1: phone absent) was interacted with conversation type (1: meaningful, -1: casual), both entered at level 2. Preliminary unconditional models showed 39% to 47% of variance was at the between-person level. Figure 2 presents the means of observed for relationship quality, partner trust, and partner empathy across conditions. Relationship quality. There were no effects of gender, age, or positive affect on relationship quality, bs ¼ 0.01 to 0.09, ts(60) ¼ 0.13 to 1.28, ps ¼ .21 to .90. At level 2 and consistent with Experiment 1, mobile phone presence predicted lower relationship quality, b ¼ 0.19, t(30) ¼ 2.29, p ¼ .03, and new to this study, results showed an interaction between mobile phone presence and conversation type, b ¼ 0.26, t(30) ¼ 3.02, p ¼ .006 (no effect of conversation type, b ¼ 0.03, t(30) ¼ 0.29, p ¼ .78). Simple slopes Downloaded from spr.sagepub.com by guest on May 26, 2013 Przybylski and Weinstein 7 Figure 2. This figure shows that the presence of a mobile phone in the laboratory room leads to lower levels of relationship quality, trust, and empathy. All critical t-tests are significant at p < .05. Error bars are based on standard error. analyses showed no effect of phone when the conversation was casual, b ¼ 0.02, t(14) ¼ 0.50, p ¼ .63. On the other hand, the presence of the mobile phone predicted lower relationship quality when the conversation was meaningful, b ¼ 0.45, t(16) ¼ 4.21, p ¼ .001. Partner trust. None of the covariates (gender, age, or positive affect) related to trust, bs ¼ 0.02 to 0.13, ts(60) ¼ 0.13 to 1.50, ps ¼ .13 to .90. At level 2, phone presence predicted less trust between partners, b ¼ 0.36, t(30) ¼ 3.76, p < .001, and meaningful conversations marginally encouraged trust, b ¼ 0.21, t(30) ¼ 2.00, p ¼ .06. These main effects were qualified by their interaction, b ¼ 0.33, t(30) ¼ 3.48, p ¼ .002. Simple slopes analyses complemented those of relationship quality, indicating that when the conversation was casual the presence of a mobile phone had no effect on partners’ trust, b ¼ 0.07, t(14) ¼ 0.26, p ¼ .80, yet partners who attempted to share a meaningful conversation in the presence of a phone reported less trust than those who did so in its absence, b ¼ 0.69, t(16) ¼ 5.24, p < .001. Downloaded from spr.sagepub.com by guest on May 26, 2013 8 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Perceived empathy. A final series of analyses were conducted predicting perceived empathy from partners. Older participants reported perceiving marginally higher empathy from their partners, b ¼ 0.04, t(60) ¼ 1.92, p ¼ .06, though there was no relation with gender, b ¼ 0.08, t(60) ¼ 0.29, p ¼ .77, or positive affect, b ¼ 0.21, t(60) ¼ 1.55, p ¼ .13. At level 2, participants reported lower perceived empathy when the phone was present compared to absent, b ¼ 0.37, t(30) ¼ 3.60, p ¼ .002, yet no effect of conversation type, b ¼ 0.18, t(30) ¼ 1.49, p ¼ .15. These relations were qualified by an interaction, b ¼ 0.36, t(30) ¼ 3.41, p ¼ .002. As before, simple slopes analyses showed no differences in perceived empathy between the two phone conditions when the conversation was a casual one, b ¼ 0.01, t(14) ¼ 0.06, p ¼ .95; however, when the conversation was meaningful the presence of a phone predicted less perceived empathy following the conversation, b ¼ 0.72, t(16) ¼ 4.66, p < .001. Conclusions These results demonstrated that the mere presence of mobile communication technology might interfere with human relationship formation, lending some empirical support to concerns voiced by theorists (Turkle, 2011). Evidence derived from both experiments indicates the mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners. Results from the second experiment indicated that these effects were most pronounced if individuals were discussing a personally meaningful topic. More specifically, results of this experiment showed that meaningful conversation topics tended to encourage intimacy and trust under neutral conditions. This difference between those in the casual and meaningful conversation conditions was absent in the presence of a mobile phone, which appeared to interfere in conditions that were otherwise conducive to intimacy. 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