TECH

Cell Phones May Hurt Interpersonal Relationships Just By Being In The Room, Study Says

09/05/2012 10:28 am ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012

A new study out of the United Kingdom is suggesting something most people already know: trying to connect with someone at a personal level when he or she is distracted by a cell phone can be a frustrating and trying experience.

But while it's probably obvious that conversing with people whose eyes are glued to their cell phone screens can be a difficult endeavor, the study also shows the mere presence of a cell phone has the ability to distract us from achieving a close personal connection -- even if the phone isn't being used.

According to Scientific American, a recent set of studies by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex shows that phones can hurt people's attempts at interpersonal connection just by being in the room.

Scientific American explains how the scientists conducted their tests:

Przybylski and Weinstein asked pairs of strangers to discuss a [topic] for 10 minutes. The strangers left their own belongings in a waiting area and proceeded to a private booth. Within the booth, they found two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away, out of their direct line of vision, there was a desk that held a book and one other item. Unbeknownst to the pair, the key difference in their interactions would be the second item on the desk.

Some pairs engaged in their discussion with a nondescript cell phone nearby, whereas other pairs conversed while a pocket notebook lay nearby. After they finished the discussion, each of the strangers completed questionnaires about the relationship quality (connectedness) and feelings of closeness they had experienced. The pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.

Przybylski and Weinstein then followed up with another experiment in which they asked groups of participants to discuss either a casual topic or a meaningful one to see in which context the presence of a cell phone mattered the most.

They discovered that the phone's presence significantly and detrimentally impacted relationship quality, trust and empathy in situations in which the participants discussed something meaningful, though the impact was negligible in the case of casual conversation.

"Thus, interacting in a neutral environment, without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy —- the building-blocks of relationships," Scientific American concludes.

According to a March 2012 report by The Huffington Post, about 88 percent of American adults own a cell phone.

And with an increasing number of people suffering from nomophobia (or the fear of being without a phone), it seems the potentially deleterious effects of cell phones on relationships may become more and more apparent as time goes on.

Florie Brizel, an author interested in "mobilology" (or the study of the effects of mobile phone use on individuals and communities), told The Huffington Post in March that balance may be the key to maintaining close relationships while having phones constantly close at hand.

She admitted, however, that achieving this balance may prove to be challenging.

Technology and humanity are not necessarily compatible. One is about an anonymous push forward into the unknown... to explore it, to develop and exploit it, which is important. The other is about paying undivided attention to the individual and the world in front of you, developing relationships, and increasing consciousness.

Both are necessary. The challenge is figuring out how to use technology to enhance humanity, not degrade it.

Do you think cell phones hurt personal relationships? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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