Lentis/Cell Phones versus Face-to-Face Interaction

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This chapter is about the effect of mobile telephones on the ways people interact. When new communication methods become available, a shift from existing modes of interaction to new methods occurs. This phenomena was present in the years following the invention of the printing press [1], the radio [2], the paper, the television [2], the internet [3], and social networking [4]. Many of these technologies have similarities to cell phones, which suggests that the technology has significantly changed the way people interact with one another.

Cell Phones Overview

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History of the Cell Phone

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In 1973, Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first call on a portable cell phone. [5] This phone sold for $3,500 in 1983.[6] As technology progressed, cellular systems began to sprawl across the United States. Cellular network technology advanced from analog to digital to broadband. All of these factors lowered the cost of the cell phone and made them available to the general public. The current cost of a cell phone today ranges from $39.99-$399.99.[7]

First Generation Cellular Networks

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The first public automated cellular networks launched in Tokyo in 1979, and within five years the network serviced the entire Japanese population [8]. Several other countries followed suit in the early 1980s. These early markets included international roaming as well as the ability to transfer calls from one site to the next as the user traveled from one coverage area to the next.

Modern commercial cellular technology was developed in 1983 by AT&T [9] . This technology had multiple base stations whose coverage areas overlapped using the same frequencies with little or no interference. Reducing coverage area sizes allowed for more base stations and therefore more capacity throughout the 1980s.

Modern Cellular Networks

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Mobile phone evolution in Japan from 1997-2004, from second to third generation models.

Second, third, and even fourth generation cellular networks have emerged since the early 1990s. Second generation networks introduced text messaging, ringtone downloads, and logo downloads [10]. Beginning in 2001, 3G networks allowed cellular phone users to indulge in new services such as internet browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, video-conferencing, and digital television. These networks also allowed for location-based services such as turn-by-turn directions [10]. Finally, fourth generation networks will increase the speed of the third generation network features, allowing for secure browsing and media streaming.

Modern Phone Capabilities & the Smartphone

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The cell phone originally served the single purpose of allowing people to talk to each other. Cell phone manufacturers realized they could expand upon the features of the cell phone and began to include: address books, text messaging, email, web surfing, etc.[11]. These new phones with various capabilities are known as smartphones, and the term "mobile device" is being used more frequently to emphasize that the cell phone is no longer just a tool for verbal communication. These features have shifted the cell phone from being a verbal communication tool to a multimedia tool.

Despite these changes, the cell phone still appears to be used as a tool for social connection and interaction. Games such as Farmville allow users to interact with other players and compare stats and scores.[12] Although modes of interaction between people may have changed (i.e. texting instead of calling), the need for social interaction has not.

Benefits of Cell Phones for Face-to-Face Interaction

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Cell phones can be used to facilitate face to face interactions. Cell phones allow a user to quickly and effectively connect with people and set up face to face meetings. Users no longer need a Rolodex or contact book; all the information needed to get in touch with somebody is stored in a cell phone. This allows a cell phone user to carry all of this information around at all times, so they can easily contact anyone in any situation[13].

Cell Phones In Developing Countries

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Cell phones have also been shown to facilitate social interactions in developing countries. A recent study on Kenya,a country that has seen a significant rise in cell phone use in the past couple years [14], shows that cell phones actually help people interact face to face. Kenyans that used cell phones had larger social networks than Kenyans without them. In addition, Kenyans with cell phones had stronger and more meaningful relationships with people in their social networks than those who did not use cell phones.[15]

Similar effects can be seen in Nigeria, which has also experienced a rapid proliferation of cell phones[16]. With the increase in cell phones, Nigerians are expanding and strengthening their social networks, which is facilitating more face to face interaction [17]. Cell phones provided a crucial link to other people and a valuable resource for managing social networks and interactions.

Cell Phones Increasing Face to Face Interactions

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Cell phones have also been shown to increase face to face interactions in young adults. A study done on high school students showed that cell phones helped them associate friends with a phone number, picture, email, and facebook. This strengthened their relationship and promoted face to face interaction[18].

Cell phone interactions are almost always preceded by face to face interactions. By allowing users to communicate while they are physically apart, cell phones increase the chance of another face to face contact [19] Researchers have also found that there is a positive link between face to face interaction and cell phone usage [20] Specifically, the more people engage in face to face interactions, the higher their frequency of cell phone use [21]. This research challenges the idea that cell phone conversations and text messaging is replacing face to face interaction, and claims that cell phones help social interactions between friends and family[20].

Conversations are sparked by cell phones. Debates about different brands and operating systems are common. It is normal to hear cell phone users defending their personal phone or comparing it to a co-worker's or friend's.

An article suggests that a high frequency of cell phone use allows people to enlarge their social network. By doing so, they are exposed to more opportunities for interpersonal communication [22]. In this way, a mobile phone can ultimately create new relationships and strengthen existing social bonds. Texting further allows people to communicate with others without interrupting ongoing communication, making it a useful tool for maintaining relationships.

File:Iphone 4G-2.jpg
iPhone 4G

Arguments Against the Use of Cell Phones

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"Present Absence"

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Cell phones penetrate people’s everyday life and facilitate convenience in communication. With this technology, people are less dependent on location-based social networks and can rapidly change their social space [23]. The theory of present absence suggests that individuals can be physically present in one place while interacting with other people through cell phones at the same time [24]. Despite one's physical present, a cell phone can draw individuals’ attention at any time after a ring or buzz, since social norms demand that people response immediately. One researcher observed that when an individual answers their cell phone, the rest of the people in the face-to-face conversation may show significant vulnerability and unease. This can cause social anxiety such as feeling left alone, insecurity and feeling unimportant, as well as annoyance towards the person taking the phone call [25].

The limited cognitive capacity of humans may also serve to explain the present absence phenomenon[26]. People's attention and performance of various cognitive abilities are reduced when they are engaged in multiple activities[27]. Thus carrying out two activities at the same time such as participating in a face to face conversation while being on the phone may represent a cognitive overload on the user. Their cognitive resources utilized for competing tasks will be assigned to those of the highest priority. An example of this is the reduction in walking pace of a pedestrian sending a text message. Cell phone users also tend to be less aware of their surroundings. This can be supported by real-life situations such as people falling into lakes while texting. [28]

Infringement on Social Boundaries

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Cell phones are also criticized for blurring public and private social spaces. A study conducted in Hong Kong suggests that most phone calls to immediate family members and friends are made on streets and other public places, in spite of the fact that only 16.1% of those surveyed think this is appropriate cell phone ettiquette [29]. These calls inevitably introduce private issues, such as “business deals, lovers’ quarrels, and the most unsavory gossip” into public places. Findings suggest that this type of cell phone usage in social spaces generates negative attitudes because it may disturb others nearby.[30] Nearby individuals are forced to accept the information from the person on the phone, which is not simply overhearing. They tend to believe that the talker is sending a message to those nearby that he or she has claimed the individual use of the public space [31].

The deregulation of boundaries in the workplace is also evident. Cell phones provide a convenient way to communicate with people outside of work, undermining the established work-life boundary in most cultures. On the other hand, cell phones facilitate fluid communication and create more direct and private links between individuals in the work space. Institutional orders dependent on spatial isolation are more difficult to maintain because people can talk to other coworkers easily outside of the workplace [32].

Effects on Social Behaviors

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Cell phones may also reduce interaction with strangers. One study shows that people who have cell phones are less likely to help strangers in need, possibly because they are less likely to observe the surroundings. They are also reluctant to show non-verbal social cues such as smiling, and unconsciously display more non-friendly behaviors [33]. Interaction with increasingly smart and interactive devices may disperse social responsibilities, causing alienation of communication at the social level.

Alternatively, certain mannerisms such as chin-cupping and back turning while on the phone are used to establish privacy boundaries in public areas. A study suggests that people who are alone in public tend to engage in activities such as being on the phone to legitimize being alone in public [34]. With the aid of cell phone, people are more reluctant to leave their comfort zone in public. These types of behaviors invite the presumption of privacy and make users appear inaccessible for social interaction.

Findings have also suggested that cell phones can be used as a form of self-exclusion in social spaces. Cell phone users have been reported to glance or gaze up from their phone (acknowledging the presence of strangers), yet according to their body language, show no intent of pursuing any type of interaction [35]. The easy accessibility of cell phones allows users the choice of opting out of social interactions with strangers.

Cell Phone Dependency

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People may become dependent on cell phone use to maintain relationships. Individuals can become attached to using their cell phones to connect with others instead of communicating via face-to-face interactions. Replacing face-to-face interactions with cell phone could lead to the problem of "friends on the wire". One person might feel close to another just because they chatted on the phone. However, they feel unease in a physical meeting due the prolonged lack of physical intimacy in the friendship. This is analogy to the idea of "friends on Facebook only", where two persons interacts well on Facebook but found themselves unable to start a conversation in real life. People who are over dependent on phones cannot function well without cell phones in the social environment, including inability to remember names, and illusions that their phone is ringing. Cell phone dependency is especially evident in teenagers, who are developing their social cognitive abilities. A study with 624 young adults showed that excessive cellular phone use may cause leisure boredom, sensation seeking, lack of self-esteem and other addictive behaviors [36]. In response, many schools in the US have banned cell phone use during the school time [37].

Another form of cell phone dependency is when the majority of people in a social group use cell phones. A Japanese researcher pointed out that cell phone use is a way of life for teenagers; about 96% of 16-to-17-year-old students typically have cell phones on their person [38], and 24% of them claim not to interact with their peers who do not have a cell phone. A cell phone is essential to being part of the social group because of the prevalence of these devices, causing discrimination and cell-phone bullies [24][39].


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People feel more comfortable text-messaging compared to talking to people face-to-face since it allows more time to deliberate.

Texting on a QWERTY keyboard.

Researchers claim that text-messaging confines the scope of social interactions. Most of the time, texters form small, close-knit groups, or “text circles,” consisting of relatively invariant members. Since text-messaging is intrinsically private, outsiders can hardly participate [40]. In addition, text-messaging creates many abbreviations and non-standard grammar patterns that only certain groups of people can understand. As a consequence, text-messaging and cell phone use potentially hinder the communication between parents and their children, since patents can hardly observe and monitor the interests of their children expressed through their text-messages.

73% of Americans admitted to using text-messaging as a tool to maintain relationships [41]. However, with respect to a romantic relationship, participants in a study placed a higher importance on face to face communication and verbal communication and believed these to be richer forms of communication [42]. Text-messaging was seen as a less significant form of communication and potential pitfalls include: misinterpretation, ambiguity, and false representation of one's true self [43]. As compare to face-to-face interactions, text messaging lacks prosody, an important feature in linguistics. Prosody includes the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech which are important to understand speaker's emotional states and presents of irony. Hence, in text messaging, users find it hard to understand one's true intention and emotion. Excess use of emotion phrases or icons such as the smiley face and "lol" further obfuscate the meaning of the text.

Cell Phone Sub Culture

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Social Norms, Cues, and Expectations

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Social components of face to face interaction have been transferred to the cell phone domain in the form of text-messaging norms, etiquette, and rules [44]. Social cues are normally based on facial expression during face to face communication, but the cell phone has replaced them with emoticons and slang words. Text-messaging jargon is an important part of belonging to the cell phone sub culture [45]. The limit of characters per SMS text message forces a form of brevity in the structure of this social interaction. Acceptable text abbreviations, emoticons, and phrases have become a large part of understanding one another in such a limited context. For example, the phrase "laugh out loud" has been replaced with abbreviations such as "lol", which has become a trademark to expressing oneself in response to humor. Emoticons such as smiley faces have replaced social cues such as “facial expressions” that one would experience in a normal conversation.

Cell phone etiquette matters when it comes to communication [46]. Society dictates that you respond to emails, pick up phone calls, respond to voice mails, and reply to text messages since mobile devices are so readily available. Failing to be responsive can send mixed messages: it leaves the sender waiting for your reply, creates speculation of a sending error, or implies avoidance of the text at hand. Text messages have become a favored form of communication as they grant users complete control over what they want to say and requires less commitment. In fact, the number of text messages sent and received has grown from 14 billion in 2000 to 188 billion in 2010, and Americans ages 18-29 send and receive an average of nearly 88 text messages per day, compared to 17 phone calls [47]. However, text-messaging can be viewed as an informal way to communicate more complex matters such as planning an event, extending an apology, or maintaining a deeper relationship. Habitual text-messaging may not only cheat existing relationships, it may also limit the ability to form new ones since it doesn't incur the art of interpreting nonverbal visual cues [48].

Social Status

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Cell phones have become a form of social status. This is something that has been perpetuated by commercials, and advertising of the latest cell phones. Some people achieve status by being an early adopter in the technology adoption life cycle, waiting in lines for the newest phones with the latest capabilities. In addition, phone specifications have become an indicator of your phone quality: screen size, display resolution, weight, internet speed, signal reception, camera resolution, cell phone applications, and more. It has become an obsession to tout the newest phone, much like buying a brand new car. Cell phones have become expensive to buy without a contract renewal, yet people still break contract to have the newest model. People value reputation above cash, and for some, higher price tags mean more status points [49]. The cell phone is a highly visible accessory, which characterizes one's technological consumerism. Those who aren't satisfied with having the latest smart phone can even purchase personalized phone cases to set themselves apart [50]. The cell phone has become an object of individuality for people to achieve their desired status.

Downloading the newest or most popular phone application provides additional status. The ability to do more with your phone is something promoted by cell phone companies, rewarded by peers, and readily available for the user to access through online market places such as Google Play. Having the most popular apps, the newest games, or the ability to find directions during a car ride immediately adds to one's reputation through their cell phone. Cell phone applications and media sharing have become the most recent technological developments amongst competing cell phone companies [51].

Social Groups

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Social Groups in Favor of Cell Phone Use

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There are many social groups support the use of cell phones for social interactions, including cell phone manufacturers, wireless service providers and agencies such as the ITU(International Telecommunication Union), the UN agency for technology and communication, and the CTIA(Cellular Telecommunications Internet Association).

Telecommunication companies, from service providers to cell phone manufacturers, advertise the social advantages of cell phones. These can be seen in cell phones advertisements. One of the world best known slogans is Nokia's "Connecting People" slogan invented by Ove Strandberg and it had been in use since 1992 [52].

Nokian logo

Social Media Integration

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Modern cell phone advertisement stressed on the capability of content sharing and the ease of social interaction with friends. Cell phone ads showcase the importance of users staying up to date with social events and meeting up with friends and how having a cell phone helps [53]. Nowadays, seamless integration to social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter is valued as the core phone functionality [54]. For example, Nokia Lumia 900 utilizes the "Live Tiles" system to show unread Facebook notifications update at a glance. The Samsung Galaxy S3 makes Facebook one of it's top shortcut priorities, allowing user to check latest statues updates from friends without even unlocking phone. Smartphone and social media became two concepts that are strongly linked together. A study has shown that 67% of smartphone customers downloaded social networking applications and spend more than 100 minutes per week using those applications [55]. In fact, people spends more time using Facebook through mobile apps than on computers [56]. On smartphone platform, many social gaming applications gained popularity, allowing players to interacts with their friends in game. Popular asynchronous social network games such as FarmVille and Draw Something do not require players to play at the same time, thus enabling users to enjoy casual game with friends on their spare time. With social gaming, cell phone introduced a new way of interaction.

Virtual meeting

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Cell phone could be used to stimulate face-to-face interactions using video conference technology such as Skype, Facetime, and Google+ Hangouts [57] [58]. Many cell phones have built-in front-facing camera to support video calling. Such video conference technology introduced the idea of "virtual meeting", allowing two people to virtually meet each other despite being in different physical locations. Virtual meeting is often used in workplace in conjunction to traditional live meeting. Virtual meeting sparked debate as to whether it replaces face-to-face meeting. Although virtual meeting allows user to see digital image of faces, it is hard to make actual eye contact due to the different locations of camera and screen. It might even provide the illusion that the other party is trying to avoid an eye contact. The lack of eye contact degrades user experience and hence the interaction made through a virtual meeting might not be as effective as a live meeting. The other psychological problem of meeting virtually is the consciousness that the video might be recorded. As compare to live meeting, user feels less privacy and security in virtual meeting and this changed how people interacts during video conference.

In addition to software technology, hardware of cell phones are constantly evolving to further embrace the idea of social connectivity. The Android Beam is an application of Near field communication technology in smartphone. It allows content transfer by a touch of two phones on the back.

Sharing and connecting with friends is now easier than before with the aid of cell phones. Through advertisements and providing various social networking features in cell phone, advocates of cell phone argued that that cell phone will increase user's social interaction rather than reducing it.

Social Groups against Cell Phone Use

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Most groups are against cell phone use for specific reasons. This sections will focus on social groups that against cell phone use in certain situations due to its disruption in the social context.


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Many movie theaters have a “zero tolerance” cell phone rule against talking on the phone and texting during the screening, because the improper use of a cell phone is a top customer complaint in movie theaters [59]. Theaters often show a short video before the actual movie to remind everyone about turning off their phone during screening [60]. In New York City, cell phone in indoor theater, library, museum etc. are exhibited. The legislation was first proposed by theater owners [61].


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Some restaurants battle against the usage of cell phone while dining. Talking loudly on the phone or snapping photos in a restaurant could cause annoyance to other diners. Irritation over distracted dining increases further with the rise of photo sharing application like Instagram and Pinterest. According to a Mobile Etiquette Survey in 2012, one in five adults share information online when eating a meal with others and a third of teens do the same [62]. A New American restaurant in Los Angeles gave a 5% discount to diners who give up their cell phones in a basket at the front door [63]. Many other high-end restaurants have a sign that says cell phone use is prohibited. Some diners are supportive of the idea by playing the "Phone Stacking" game invented by Brian Perez to prevent meal-time interruption [64]. In the game, everyone stack their phones face down in the center of the table while dining and the first person who pick up his/her phone pays the bill.


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Many schools in the US also ban the use of cell phones among students. A Survey has shown that 24% of K-12 schools ban cell phones in school and 62% ban cell phones in classroom in 2010 [65]. Schools believe that cell phones may have negative impacts on the mental and social development of the students. However, teenagers treat text messaging as the primary method of communication rather than talking face-to-face. Thus, bans from school is not usually effective, 58% of cell-owning teens at schools that ban phones have sent a text during class [66]. Parents, on the other hand, have a conflicting emotion towards teenager cell phone use. Parents wants to get in touch with their teens. However, cell phones often result in irritating interruptions in family gatherings. Cell phone could also possibly create a culture gap between older generations and the younger generations. Unrestricted cell phone use could lead to teenager cell phone overuse. Although cell phone helps strength the bonds between teenage peers, cell phone overuse is highly undesired by parents and also viewed as an unhealthy problem by the society.

It should also be pointed out that, because the cell phone has a high penetration rate in people's social life, individuals are becoming more willing to tolerate certain use of cellphones in the public. While mobile phones are typically banned in primary education settings, many educators and parents believe that cell phones may prepare children for crisis situations[67]. According to the unified theory of acceptance and use of technology, we may believe that cell phone may gain further popularity in changing people's social life.

Cell Phone and Driving

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The most severe criticism of cell phone use is using cell phone while driving. Cell phone is a huge distraction to driver and thus potentially led to higher rate of accident. Experiment shown that texting while driving had a greater impact than driving drunk [68]. Research shows that risk of a collision is 4 times higher with cell phone usage and hands-free cell phone units offers no advantage[69]. Many social groups campaigned against cell phone usage while driving, such as Stop Texts Stop Wrecks Org, Teens Against Distracted Driving and AT&T's Texting Can Wait Campaign. Currently, 10 states prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phone while driving [70]. Some argued that having a phone conversation is similar to having a conversation with a passenger in the car. However, Cognitive Psychologist Goldstein pointed out that a friend on the phone behave differently than a passenger. A passenger will be more aware of traffic condition and would pause conversation upon upcoming hazards whereas a friend on the phone could not do that[71]. He also argued that phone conversation is socially demanding and it is generally considered poor manner to suddenly stop talking or to pause for a long period.


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The full implications of cell phone use on face-to-face interaction are unclear. The effects of older technologies like the printing press and the radio were not fully understood until several years later, and this lag time can only be expected to take place for a technology as complex as the cell phone. The cell phone has as many groundbreaking characteristics as these other technologies and its effects have been varied, ranging from social isolation to increased social networks and face-to-face interaction. Many of the effects of cell phones on face-to-face interactions are dependent on the users [72]. However, users are often constrained by expectations and norms in the society. Society has implicit rules that dictate when one is expected to use a cell phone for social interactions and when one is not allowed to use a cell phone. One generalizable lesson is that technologies can be extremely negative or extremely positive, and these effects are dependent on the habits of the users themselves and the society norms.


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