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Are smartphones killing the art of face-to-face conversation? We ask the experts

Smartphones are everywhere now and for many of us they serve as a constant companion. They keep us continually connected, filling gaps in our day, entertaining us, and demanding our attention with a string of notifications. Because they offer a convenient alternative to face-to-face conversations, and at times they butt into our chats directly, there’s a growing realization that they may be killing the art of conversation.

Smartphones enable us to avoid direct conversations altogether. We can chat via text messages, or in real-time on social media, but there’s a danger that we’re missing out on some important aspects of communication when we do this.

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“In a good conversation, the words we say are only one small part of the meaning that we convey, there’s also body language, tone of voice, facial expression,” Dr. James Roberts, Professor of Marketing at Baylor University and author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone? told Digital Trends.

“When we send a text or email, or we post or tweet, we lose all but what is being said and so there is a lot of misinformation, miscommunication, and hurt feelings, because we don’t have those other sources of information that help us imbue some kind of meaning into what somebody is saying.”

Phones are a useful barrier for avoiding small talk, but their influence is expanding well beyond the train or the bus stop. Stories about text message break-ups are common. People take to Facebook to notify their friends and families about weddings and funerals. Phones offer a convenient opt out for any potentially uncomfortable conversation.

“Every conversation we get a little bit better at reading people, at striking up a conversation, and at maintaining a conversation,” says Roberts. “Some people are becoming conversational cowards. They lack the willingness to have difficult face-to-face conversations, and they aren’t cultivating those skills.”

In this Bank of America survey, 29 percent of Americans chose text as their preferred method of conversing with others, compared to 40 percent of millennials. While 38 percent of Americans of all ages chose in person conversations as their top choice, compared to 33 percent of millennials.

“A lot of what used to be done face to face is now done via computer mediated communication and I think that’s sad because what we’ve lost is the humanness of contact and conversation,” suggests Roberts. “When we lose our ability to relate to people, to empathize with people, we care less about those people.”

It seems ironic that a device designed to enable communication could have a detrimental impact, but most of us are familiar with phubbing, even if we haven’t heard the term before – it’s a portmanteau of phone and snub.

“89 percent of Americans say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, and 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in,” said MIT Professor, Sherry Turkle in an interview promoting her last book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Most of us know someone who can’t seem to stop checking their phone, even when we’re talking to them directly. And if we’re honest, many of us are guilty of it ourselves. There’s even a Stop Phubbing campaign.

There’s clearly a generational divide in our attitudes towards smartphones.

“When some people start to feel insecure, they instantly look to their lifeline, their smartphone. They don’t realize that sometimes pregnant pauses and uncomfortable lulls in conversation are something to work through,” says Roberts.

“The mere presence of a phone undermines conversation quality.”

This 2012 study compared conversations between pairs of strangers. Some had a smartphone placed on a table top nearby, others a notebook. Asked about their conversation partner after the chat, the group with the phone were less positive, and felt their conversations had been less meaningful.

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The idea that the mere presence of a phone can make us feel less empathy for our conversational partner has been backed up in other research, like this 2014 study. Phubbing is also having a negative impact on relationship satisfaction, according to this 2016 study. Despite the wider recognition that phubbing is gaining as a problem, smartphone usage is still rising.

We’ve seen survey, after survey about the increase in smartphone usage, particularly among millennials. One survey found that 93 percent of millennials use their phones in bed, 80 percent use them in the restroom, and 43 percent use them while stopped at a red light. Another recent survey found that 66 percent of millennials check their phone as soon as they wake in the morning, and nearly 10 percent wake up during the night to check it. The average figures for older generations are lower.

There’s clearly a generational divide in our attitudes towards smartphones. What’s acceptable is changing, but we’re still figuring out the social rules, because this is still a relatively new technology. There’s a lot of hyperbole about the impact on millennials, but what about the next generation growing up with smartphones and the potential impact on parental relationships?

“For parents and kids there’s something very different about having conversation in person,” Dr. Jenny Radesky, child behavior expert and pediatrician, told Digital Trends. “Part of your interaction with kids is actually physical, they’re snuggling, the body-to-body contact actually regulates children’s and parent’s heart rates.”

Back in 2013, when Dr. Radesky was working at Boston Medical Center, she ran a study looking at mobile device use by parents and caregivers while they were having a fast food meal with their kids.

“We were amazed at how little interacting some of the families were doing, or how often the child was asking for something specific and the parents were not even looking up, and just pushing them some food without really responding.”

“The mere presence of a phone undermines conversation quality.”

She became interested in what was going on for those parents. Why were they so absorbed in their smartphones? Last year, at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital she conducted several in-depth interviews with parents and caregivers of kids under the age of eight.

“We kept hearing the same types of things. Cognitively, parents talked about having a really hard time switching between work brain and child brain,” she explains. “It’s dysphoric to feel a sudden interruption when you have flow in your reading.”

Because our smartphones serve up a varied menu of news about world events, work emails, and messages from friends and family, they can be hard to detach from. Some interviewees spoke about the difficulty of switching a smartphone off and controlling the internal reactions that some content would stir up in them.

“Parenting can be exhausting and boring and repetitive, especially if you have a kid who is tough to handle,” says Radesky. “I’m really interested in how that might drive parents to seek their own emotional regulation through a device. It’s important that parents not feel they need to be exquisitely responsive to their children all waking hours of the day because there’s a point where that becomes intrusive.”

Every parent turns to their smartphone from time-to-time for entertainment, for themselves or for their child, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that.

“It’s possible that when you hand that difficult child a mobile device, parent stress goes down so you’re less likely to yell at them, and you reduce conflict in the moment, which could be a good thing,” explains Radesky.

“The question is — are we displacing some of the important parent-child moments and activities where children need to be taught social and emotional skills?”

To a certain degree humans are adapting to all this pervasive technology

There’s no easy answer to that. All children have a different set of needs and different temperaments. What they learn from face-to-face conversations is very important, but how much is enough isn’t clear.

When a group of preteens spent five days at a nature camp without access to screens, this study found that they were better at recognizing non-verbal emotional cues (facial expressions, body language, gestures) than they had been before the camp. Control groups with access to screens showed no change.

“My hypothesis is that some of those more difficult or poorly regulated kids, who may be at higher risk of behavior or developmental issues down the line, are handed devices more often,” suggests Radesky.

Research in this area is difficult because of confounding social and psychological factors with larger data sets. How much of what is observed is because of the device or the media on it, versus say the income level of the family, the mental well-being of the parent, or the child’s temperament?

“To a certain degree humans are adapting to all this pervasive technology and finding new ways to put it aside and filter it out,” says Radesky. “But perhaps we need a bit of a design change in the device so it’s not so effectively absorbing or attention grabbing.”

One answer could be to incentivize people to put their phones away, like the Pocket Points app, which is designed to reward students for not using their phones during class. Other apps, like BreakFree, can help us track our smartphone usage and gain some awareness.

“It really is an issue of self-control,” says Dr. Roberts. “Set aside smartphone-free zones and times. Draft social contracts that lay down the laws about what’s acceptable or unacceptable smartphone use and what the punishments and rewards for either keeping or breaking the contract should be.”

If you’re concerned, it’s easy to start taking steps. Put your phone in the trunk when you drive, so you can’t be distracted by it. Don’t allow phones at the dinner table. And the next time you’re chatting to someone and you feel that wee buzz on your leg, or hear an incoming alert, ignore it until you’re done talking – it’s probably not more important than the conversation you’re in.