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Study discovers how cell phone use affects social interactions

BY CLAIRE GOSCICKI
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 31, 2011

The way you use cell phones says a lot about how you act after you've hung up, according to a University study.

Appearing in the current issue of Human Communication Research, an international journal that presents contemporary communication studies research, a recent University study found that the frequency and methods of cell phone use affect how users interact with people around them.

The study was led by Scott Campbell, an assistant professor of Communication Studies and Nojin Kwak, an associate professor of Communication Studies. The two hypothesized that frequent cell phone users would be less likely to talk with strangers in public settings due to what Campbell calls the “tele-cocooning” effect, or the tendency of cell phones to reduce interpersonal interactions.

Campbell said the study shed light on an interesting paradox in that cell phones can close people off but also help them connect with the world around them.

“The technology itself is not good or bad,” Campbell said. “It is how it’s used and who it’s used with.”

In the study, more than 1,800 responses from a national survey suggested that cell phone users seeking news on their mobile devices were more likely to engage with people around them than people talking on cell phones. Additionally, the study found that people who use cell phones to coordinate plans are more likely to participate in public conversations.

Campbell said the findings also support the notion that people who talk on cell phones frequently are less likely to communicate in public.

“Cell phones do have the potential to make us more focused on what’s going on in our personal lives, and the personal lives of the people that we’re close to,” Campbell said. “Maybe we’re not paying enough attention to things outside that realm.”

While Campbell said he was surprised to find that cell phone use can spark conversations with strangers, the new findings also support the researchers’ previous hypothesis that cell phone use can strengthen familial bonds and encourage interpersonal communication.

These previous findings, which were published in an issue of New Media & Society last year, challenge the popular assumption that cell phones are replacing face-to-face contact. In the 2010 study, Campbell and Kwak found that a positive link exists between the amount of time spent communicating with someone on the phone and the amount of face-to-face time with that person.

Campbell said his fascination with how mobile communication devices connect and detach people motivated him to pursue research on the topic. He added that he plans to continue studying cell phones, particularly how they function in international societies.

“Who we are closely connected with rubs off on us,” he said. “I’m interested in the way that the cell phone facilitates that social contagion effect.”

This week, Campbell and Kwak presented separate research at a conference in Hawaii. The research focused on the ways mobile communication facilitates connectedness and disconnectedness between adults in South Korea. Kwak, who is in Hawaii, could not be reached for comment.

Campbell said there is a lot left to explore in the field of telecommunications.

“Compared with other technology studies, only a sliver of research is being done on mobile communication,” Campbell said. “It’s outrageous because cell phones are contributing so much to social change. I think it’s meaningful and something that people take for granted.”

Next fall, Campbell plans to teach a course in the Department of Communication Studies called “Social Consequences of Mobile Communication,” which will examine mobile device use and the impact it has on social interactions.

“(The course) will basically explore the social changes that we’re witnessing right now with mobile communication,” he said.