The iPhone Effect on Social Interaction

Photo by Garry Knight, Flickr CC.
Photo by Garry Knight, Flickr CC.

Last September, Apple sold 10 million iPhone 6 devices in a weekend. Are those just 10 million new ways to hinder face-to-face interaction?

Shalini Misra and her colleagues, writing in Environment and Behavior, argue that mobile devices aren’t just distracting as toys, they also have strong symbolic meaning as tools that connect us to other social networks and information. So being in the company of mobile phones can split our attention between two worlds of social interaction—face-to-face and digital—undermining the quality of interaction in both.

They conducted a naturalistic experiment to investigate the “iPhone effect.” A hundred pairs of people were recruited at coffee shops and randomly assigned a topic for conversation. A hidden researcher watched the 10-minute conversation, tracking whether either participant brought a mobile device into the environment.

When a mobile device was visible, even if it was not actively being used, participants were more likely to report their conversations “less fulfilling” than participants who conversed in a device-free environment. The presence of mobile devices was also associated with less empathy, especially for participants who were close with another. Conversation topic, gender, ethnicity, age, and mood did not influence conversation ratings to the same extent as the “iPhone effect.”

The study provides evidence of the less obvious ways that phones, though they allow for expanding social networks online, can divert our attention from developing and maintaining offline relationships through personal interaction.