A few years back, my colleague Carman Neusaedter remarked to me, “Hey, there’s got to be something on how using phones at home make people feel disconnected from one another, right?” Surprisingly, best we could tell from our literature survey, there really wasn’t much out there on the topic (academically). Beyond everyday pop psychology articles on the web, we really couldn’t find much that addressed the topic at the time. This seemed crazy to us, because the experience of having to tell a loved one, “Hey, put down that phone, I’m talking to you,” seemed like it was becoming an everyday occurrence.
Thus, we set out to address this question by designing a study where we asked people: “Hey, document instances where someone in your home was using a cell phone, or you were using a cell phone.” Beyond this, we asked them, “How did you feel about it?” The results of this study was recently presented at the DIS 2016 conference (Odour, Neustaedter, Odom, Tang, Moallem, Tory, & Irani, 2016).
The interesting thing with investigating a phenomenon that seems embedded in contemporary life is that you can find lots of things that seem related in pop culture, but it is hard to know how much of it is universal, and how long the effect will last. A funny meme that circulated for a while depicts a trainful of commuter passengers from the early 1900s where every passenger is reading a newspaper. The caption usually reads, “All this technology is making us anti-social.” As a mid-30-something researcher who is increasingly becoming aware of his age, I am accutely aware of how annoying it is when my students or my family members pull out their phones in my presence; however, it is hard for me to really reflect and remember accutely a time when this wasn’t the case (technically, I was around before the emergence of the modern smartphone, but sadly, it is kind of hard to remember that far back).
There are a number of interesting findings that we outline in the paper, but for my money, my favourite is that there are real shades of fundamental attribution error when it comes to people thinking about others (and their own) mobile phone use. In an academic nutshell: when others are using their phones, we consider primarily internal factors as explanatory for their behaviours; with our own use, we tend to attribute our behaviour to external factors. In everyday lingo: “When I see you using your phone (and I am around), you are inconsiderate and rude; if you see me using my phone (and you around), it is because I got a notification – it’s not my fault, and I’ll be done soon.” This sort of imbalance in how we interpret others’ and our own behaviour really resonated with me, and of course, it is hilarious to think about.
I think our paper did a really good job of articulating this observation, and capturing how people try to manage this problem in their everyday life. I think our paper is a bit weaker in terms of offering concrete design solutions – this is a really challenging piece of the puzzle. Others will likely take up this mantle and (hopefully) run with it. We had a couple of ideas, but I think they’re still a little half-baked.
One “everyday” thing you can do is to “announce” what you are doing on your phone as you are doing it. This tends to alleviate some of frustration, particularly if your actions are “for the greater good” of the group. As a joke in the DIS 2016 presentation, I called this “free marital advice.”
This was a really tricky study to design. In the end, we used three methods (pre-study survey, diary study, interviews). Ultimately, even though we spent a lot of time designing each of the methods, it was the interviews that was the richest source of data. I still believe that the diary method (where we asked people to document instances of their own use of phones or others’ uses of their phones) was important in sensitizing participants to the issue, and having them think through their feelings about the issue. We refered explicitly to some of these diary entries (which tended to be very terse and not particularly rich on their own) in the interviews, and I think this was important.
We decided to only allow one participant per household. This was a tricky choice from a “scientific” perspective, but clearly the correct one from an ethical perspective. We considered, for example, allowing multiple people from the same household participating. This would allow them to document the instances of use and also give us everyone’s actual (self-reported) perspective on the use and the consequences (and results) of that use. But, the challenge is that we considered that likely, it would create even more friction in the home – “Hey, what did you write about me just now?!” One of the core tenets in the TCPS on research ethics is that we need to respect the well-being of our participants. This includes the well-being of their families, and ensuring we do not induce unnecessary harm.