How Smart Phones Are Impacting Your Friendships

As I checked my email this morning while walking down the street, I had a moment in which I lifted my head to realize that I couldn’t tell you one thing that had happened along that block. What interactions had I missed by being more engrossed in my wireless world than my physical surroundings?

Increased use of cell phones reflects an overall increase in human communication, connecting people who previously may not have kept in touch. But this level of connectivity also raises several concerns: How are cell phones affecting our social relations? Does our heightened reliance reflect a greater desire to stay more connected to even more people? Are cell phones strengthening already existing relations or facilitating new ones?

A 2008 advertising campaign for Dentyne Gum used clever quips to assert that technology is replacing cherished personal moments. The campaign is based upon the premise of appreciating “face time” — in-person interactions. One of their prints features a man bending down to kiss a woman goodbye as it reads, “The original instant message.” Such messages suggest that sentiments behind intimate interactions are being expressed through (and possibly replaced by) technology. While the advertisements potentially suggest how technology can be used to reflect such emotions, they also highlight the face-to-face interactions that a person loses through wireless communication.

Dentyne Gum's 2008 "face time" ads


According to Hans Geser in Thumb Culture (2005): “Mobile phones may … support tendencies towards closure rather than towards the opening up to new acquaintances … While the intrusion of strangers can be reduced, circles of established friendships can be deepened because a higher density of communication within such circles can be maintained.”

For my senior thesis in Sociology in 2009, I chose to study this exact question, the influence of cell phone use on inter-personal relationships. My results supported Geser’s hypothesis that cell phone use reflects, and is used to strengthen, already existing close relationships. People’s phone use often reflects the hierarchy in which they view their own relationships. One most frequently turns to their phone to reach out to those deemed high priority, simultaneously projecting that their wireless communication is more appealing or important than their physical surroundings. As a consequence, peripheral relationships and face-to-face interactions with strangers or “lower priority” friends are diminished.

Interestingly, people commonly express underlying anxieties associated with their phones. Those who deemed themselves highly reliant reported anxiety stemming from feeling overly dependent — the thought of losing or conducting daily life without a cell phone creates immense stress and discomfort. People who use their cell phones less also experience anxiety when they feel too reachable. They also experience an anxious desire to locate the person at the other end of the cellphone conversation to quell any uncertainty about where one’s friend and family may be or what he or she is doing. This juxtaposition of attachment and anxiety resembles the feelings inspired by a romantic relationship. 

I can’t help but return to Dentyne’s campaign and reflect on how well they captured the sentiments behind “send & receive.” Texts are exciting because they are reminders of the relationships that satisfy us. I recognize and appreciate the role my cell phone has played in allowing me to strengthen these relationships.

But in the end, face time can’t be replaced. It often takes conscious effort, but I try to remind myself to find the balance between using my phone to maintain relationships while not closing doors on those yet to be fostered.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons