Jeffrey Hall interview: Are smartphones destroying our relationships?
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Ever since the ‚Look Up‘ video went viral, smartphone users have been asking themselves how devices are impacting their private lives.

Are Facebook friends real? Am I missing out in life by staring down at my phone? Should I be talking to more strangers in public places and not friends on WhatsApp?

WebMagazin spoke to Jeffrey Hall, professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas about his recent study „Put Down that Phone and Talk to Me: Understanding the Roles of Mobile Phone Norm Adherence and Similarity in Relationships“.

WebMagazin: You recently conducted a study on the effects of smartphone use in relationships. What did you find out?

Hall: Our article speaks to the role that cell phone etiquette plays in one particular close relationship (either a friendship or a romantic relationship). We make claims about the influence of following mobile phone etiquette on the two individuals in an existing relationship, not on how it affects others in public or potential relationship partners (like meeting or talking to strangers).

We don’t find that absolute amounts of mobile phone use or perceptions of the appropriate rules of mobile phone (what is permissible or not) influence people’s relationship. Instead, people more closely follow their own standards of mobile phone etiquette in relationships that are satisfying, and feel more satisfied in the relationship when both partners are on the same page about how to use one’s mobile phone when co-present.

Where there are large differences in rules of mobile conduct between relationship partners, there is more of a chance of offense and disconnect.

WM: Why is it that using a mobile phone in public is (still) so controversial?

Hall: When we talk about mobile behavior, we also tend to forget that people are managing two contexts simultaneously – one around them and one on the phone – and both require ethical decisions that may be in conflict with one another.

Few of us would say it’s a good idea to put strangers before your mother, for instance, yet when we judge people for talking on the phone around us, that may be exactly what we are doing. Perhaps that phone call or text is the only chance person has to connect with a close friend, partner, brother/sister, or son or daughter.

The public nature of mobile phone use makes it a more contentious behavior, but it doesn’t mean we are impairing our relational lives in texting or calling when in public.

WM: Is there one culturally accepted set of rules for polite smartphone use?

Hall: Keep in mind that there is very strong evidence of generational and cultural differences in what constitutes appropriate behavior. We are in a turbulent time where the standards of conduct are unknown and emergent, leading to many people applying one’s own personal standards on another person.

We are not in agreement culturally. But our research would say that when people in a relationship perceive agreement with one another (especially in more private settings), it points to a better relationship.

WM: The ‚Look Up‘ video has caused another wave of paranoia about device addiction. Is the narrator right in saying that we need to put down phones to engage in meaningful relationships?

Hall: New technologies always bring about a moral panic – something we talk about toward the end of the paper. Whether the telegraph, TV, telephone, or the internet, there is always a period of worry and concern that accompanies the integration of new technology into our lives. Worries accompanying the rise of the mobile and ’smart‘ phone are no different.

The ‚Look Up‘ video is poetic and timely, and I appreciate the passion of the author. I, too, think that we need to connect with others and form meaningful relationships, but I think the jury is still out on whether using a mobile phone impairs our close relationships with those co-present or with those on the other end of the communication.

In terms of mobile phones, I see us as being in a period where we are really working out the norms and it is premature to decide on what is good and what is bad.

Jeffrey Hall is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas and author of „The Five Flirting Styles“ as well as numerous publications on social networking and relationships.

Feature image: Couple in a modern common phase of mutual Disinterest via Shutterstock / copyright: View Apart

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