TECH
08/26/2015 09:29 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2015

Americans Think Smartphones Hurt Socializing, But Use Them Anyway

New Pew survey reveals your grandma is annoyed you're texting at dinner.

If you feel tempted to pull out your smartphone in church, at a meeting, during a movie or while you're out to dinner, think twice about responding to that chirp or buzz: Overwhelming majorities of American adults think using your device in these places is not OK.  

If you're on the street, on the bus or waiting in line, approximately three-quarters of your fellow Americans think using your phone is fine -- that is, as long as you're not oversharing, yelling, using abusive language or texting while walking.  

Pew Research Center

This snapshot of modern social norms comes from the Pew Research Center, which on Wednesday published its first report on Americans' views on mobile device etiquette in public places. 

The research confirms what you probably already know from your own experience: People are taking their cell phones with them everywhere, which means that they're sometimes using them in places and contexts that make other people uncomfortable. They're also leaving them on, living in a state of constant connectivity.

Pew Research Center

After cell phones gained broad adoption in the 2000s, smartphones have become mainstream faster than any comparable technology in history.

According to ComScore, just 2 percent of American cell phone subscribers owned a smartphone in 2005. A decade later, approximately two-thirds of American adults own a smartphone of some kind, Pew said in its report. Millions more will join the ranks of smartphone users in the years ahead, as the remainder of the 92 percent of American adults who own cellphones upgrade their devices.

More Connected Than Alone Together 

Pew Research Center

One of the most interesting results in the report is that our cell phone use is often for social purposes, not to avoid interaction with others. Just 22 percent of the people surveyed said that they frequently or occasionally use their phones to avoid interacting with people near them. 

Pew Research Center

"It's not like phone use is anti-social or isolating or somehow creating broad social problems," said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet and Life Project. "They're often doing things with their phones that are quite pro-social, rather than anti-social: They're checking in with other people and trying to figure out where they're going so that they can get to other people. There are lots of ways to see what's happening on the screen as highly social, rather than creating isolation and loneliness." 

 The paradox, however, is that while 82 percent of people surveyed think cell phone use hurts social situations rather then helps, 95 percent of smartphone owners said that they'd used their phones during their last social interaction. 

Pew Research Center

"The big social insight that you get from this is that, in some ways, people use cellphones to expand the boundaries of social gatherings," said Rainie. "It's not just the people in the physical vicinity, but it's bringing others who are remote into the scene. It's interesting that the conversations themselves have a more expansive quality to them because it's enabled by the technology."

This isn't a new phenomenon, however.

"One of the longstanding trends in survey work, that extends to lots of different things, is 'I'm OK, everybody else isn't,'" he said. "People have this wonderful capacity to justify their own behavior and think that what they're doing is OK, and then worry about other people." (Distracted driving is one example.) 

Sound familiar?

Smartphone Etiquette Differs By Generation. Who Knew?

On the one hand, it's utterly unsurprising that the rapid adoption of smartphones has challenged existing social norms about when, where and how people should use mobile devices -- and who should use them. Seventy-nine percent of the adults in Pew's survey said they encounter loud or annoying behavior involving cell phones in public. Nearly a third say they frequently encounter it.

Pew Research Center

Millennials ages 18 to 29 are far more likely to approve of cell phone use in public or in social situations, particularly if they are smartphone owners. Seniors are the least likely to use their cell phones in public places or social gatherings, and the most likely to say that such use isn't OK. 

The biggest potential for a clash of generations lies in places of worship, meetings and traditionally quiet places, like theaters. Between 9 and 11 percent of people ages 18 to 29 approve of cell phone use in these contexts, while 96 to 99 percent of Americans ages 50 and up do not.

"The story about generational differences is probably shaped a lot by circumstances," Rainie said. "If you grow up with this stuff, if you came of age with cell phones being ubiquitous and fully integrated into social life, you have a different view about what's appropriate and inappropriate compared with your grandparents, who think that it's a horror that people would even have their phones buzzing in church, much less having more direct phone use taking place."

The most notable difference is in restaurants. While significant majorities of older people say that it's not OK to use a mobile device in a restaurant, just half of young adults ages 18 to 29 say it's not OK. There are, however, far more similarities than differences in how we view mobile phone etiquette.

One challenge we may increasingly have with how and where we use smartphones is the possibility that search engines could change the way that we think. If that happens, not having them could literally take away part of our memory.

If our brains become better at recalling how to find information and where it is stored online, as opposed to the information itself, pulling out a smartphone (or, presumably, talking to a wearable device) will be necessary for future generations. 

Phone Calls Aren't Dead Yet, But Sometimes They Should Be

Pew Research Center

Aside from the eyebrow-raising statistic than 9 percent of young people are OK with the use of cell phones in church, there was another interesting statistic in the report: Despite the explosion of social media, texting and messaging apps, people are still making phone calls. In fact, young people are using their phones the most to make calls.

All that chatting has one interesting effect: More than half of respondents told Pew that they frequently or occasionally overhear intimate details of other people's lives. That's a lot of secret sharing (and oversharing) -- and not just by former NSA directors who should know better than to give anonymous interviews on Amtrak. 

Pew Research Center

Surprise! Seniors Aren't On Facebook And Snapchat At Parties

When it comes to social gatherings, 94 percent of Americans over 65 say using cellphones frequently hurts or never helps the event. But even if grandma disapproves, we're still probably texting during her birthday party: Eighty-nine percent of American adults told Pew they've used their phones at social events.

Pew Research Center

Some of this is related to personal use and familiarity.

"This is a reflection of old folks being less likely to have smartphones in the first instance," Rainie said. "We asked everybody about these ethical judgements, then we asked cell phone users of all kinds about their behaviors. Older folks are more likely to just have feature phones than smartphones, so some of that is explained by the technology itself. 

If Smartphones Are Essential Tools, When Should We Use Them?

The challenge that the majority of American adults now face as we navigate social situations is that our smartphones aren't just for recreation, diversion or documentation: They're powerful computers connected to the Internet, which makes them useful

Pew Research Center

"For young people, the cell phone is the go-to instrument for so many things," Rainie said. "It happens to make phone calls. You watch the young adults moving around life, and it's just an instinctive thing that their phone is there to document things, to enhance the social setting, to gather up information. It's a very different mindset, in part because this is the life they grew up with."

Bringing smartphones on vacation can be problematic, however: While they can be incredibly helpful tools when you're traveling, they can also keep us too connected. That's why disabling functions and deleting apps can be wise. (A "vacation mode" would be most welcome, Google and Apple.)

Whether we're on vacation, at work, shopping, eating or traveling, simply asking if people mind if you make a call or use a mobile device can go a long way.

"The open negotiation over things can probably calm down a lot of the most angry assumptions that some folks are making," Rainie suggested. "Saying 'I'm going to look at my phone now to do X,' or saying 'We really can't have phones at this meeting.' I hear stories all the time about people who go out to restaurants and say no phones tonight. 'Everybody, put their phones on the table and the first who reaches for their phone takes the bar tab.'"

What Will Be The New Norm? 

Realistically, leaving a cellphone or smartphone behind when we go out, go to work or travel isn't a decision most American adults are going to make soon, particularly given what we're using them for. That means we're going to need to keep talking with one another about what the norms for their use should be.

For folks wondering about the right way to use a phone, I'd suggest looking at Pew's numbers, taking note of the situations that make most people uncomfortable, and adjusting. You may or may not use your device to exchange messages at a family dinner, but if you're out to dinner with older coworkers or your boss' boss, this should be on your mind. 

The odds are good that people over 50 are not going to find your use of a phone in meetings socially acceptable. With just 10 percent of people ages 18 to 29 saying that it's OK to use a device at a meeting, should we be going "phone down"?

"It's important to understand that some uses of these devices can really make a contribution," Rainie said. "I hear from bosses from time to time who say that it fries them when younger colleagues are looking at their phones in a meeting, but then it turns out that before the meeting is over that they've answered a bunch of the questions that might have taken a longer time for older colleagues to answer after they'd left the meeting. There's a lot more knowledge in the room, but it takes a while for everyone to adjust to these new behaviors."

In other words, connected staff may well be more productive, not less. Your mileage and tolerance for tapping may vary.

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