From Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications VOL. 6 NO. 1
The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication
All 100 respondents owned a smartphone or tablet. When asked how frequently students use their cell phones, 60% of respondents said they use their phone more than 4 hours a day, with 18% of respondents admitting to more than 8 hours of usage a day. Almost all students (97%) bring their cell phones or tablets with them every time they leave the house and only one respondent said they rarely do. Some students (18%) reported that when spending time with friends or family, they always use their cell phone or tablet. The majority of students use their cell phone sometimes when they are with family or friends (74%), and only 8% of students rarely use their phone in the presence of friends and family. No respondents indicated that they never use their cell phone or tablet when spending time with friends or family. Additionally, 46 percent of respondents said they communicate with friends or family more frequently via technology than in person, while 26% said the opposite.
Field observations yielded similar results regarding technology use and habits among Elon students. Of more than 200 students observed, 69% were using technology in one way or another. The author found that 78 of 134 students observed alone (58%) were either texting or holding their phones, 21 (16%) were talking on the phone or wearing ear buds, and only 35 students (26%) were not using any technology.
The author found it important to observe students’ technology use and habits while with others as well. The author found that 38 of 100 students (38%) while with others used no technology; 62% were either texting, talking on the phone, or using a computer or tablet.
In an effort to determine what impacts technology has on face-to-face communication, the survey asked students to rank the statement on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree: “It bothers me when my friends or family use technology while spending time with me.” Seventy-four percent of respondents said that they either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, while only 6% disagreed. Among respondents, 20% neither agreed nor disagreed.
Another survey question asked students whether they believed the presence of technology, while spending time with others, affects face-to-face interpersonal communication negatively. An overwhelming 92% of respondents believed technology negatively affects face-to-face communication, and only 1% did not. Only 7% of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed.
A third question regarding the impacts of technology on face-to-face communication asked students whether they noticed quality degradation in conversation amongst the presence of technology. Eighty-nine percent of respondents believed there was a degradation, only 5% disagreed, and 6% neither agreed nor disagreed.
While conducting field observations, similar results found evident degradation in the quality of conversation among those students using technology in the presence of others. One student, observed outside a campus building, was FaceTiming an individual on her iPhone. When a friend proceeded to join her in person, the female ignored her friend and continued her conversation on FaceTime. Many students at Lakeside Dining Hall ate lunch with their friends, but neglected to engage in any conversation. Instead, a large majority of the students in the dining hall sitting with others (73%) spent their time texting or using their computers or tablets.
When asked for additional feedback regarding technology use and face-to-face communication, students provided a number of insightful responses. One student said, “I don’t like using my phone when I’m with friends in person, and I don’t like it when they use theirs, but if it is used in a way to stimulate conversation – like showing a funny video, or documenting our time together via Snapchat or photos – then I think it is acceptable.” Another student agreed, mentioning that whether technology affects face-to-face communication positively or negatively depends on how it is used. A third student shared similar opinions stating, “I don’t mind if it’s used to enhance a conversation (looking up important information or things relevant to a conversation); otherwise, it typically takes away from the experience in general as you can tell the other person(s) attention is divided and unfocused on the present moment.”
Many respondents voiced their concerns that technology is diminishing society’s ability to communicate face to face. One student stated, “People have lost the ability to communicate with each other in face-toface interactions,” while another respondent said, “Technology is making face-to-face communication much more difficult because people use technology as a crutch to hide behind.” A third student responded, “I think technology impedes our ability to interact with people face to face,” and a fourth agreed that technology “both enhances what we share online and decreases what we say face to face.”
Other students shared sentiments that using technology to communicate is acceptable, but when used in the presence of others is disrespectful. One student responded, “I think putting away phones and technology is a sign of respect when having a conversation with someone and shows that you have their full attention. Even though it’s sometimes hard to have those times when people are not attached to their phones, I think it is more important than ever.” Many students mentioned that while spending time with friends or family, they have to make a conscious effort not to use technology. One respondent said, “At dinners with my friends, we do a cell phone tower and the first to touch the tower has to pay.” It appears that despite being aware of their own behaviors and habits regarding technology, the majority of students agree that face-to-face communication and the quality of conversations are negatively impacted by technology.
Field observations, a survey of 100 Elon students, and an analysis of previously conducted studies provided evidence that the rapid expansion of technology is negatively affecting face-to-face communication. People are becoming more reliant on communicating with friends and family through technology and are neglecting to engage personally, uninhibited by phones and devices, even when actually in the presence of others. A majority of individuals felt the quality of their conversations degraded in the presence of technology, and many individuals were bothered when friends or family used technology while spending time together. Additionally, nearly half of survey respondents (46%) communicate more frequently with friends and family via technology than in person, indicating strongly that face-to-face interactions have decreased both in quality and in quantity.
Only time will tell what the long-term impacts of this radical shift in communication methods will yield. Will employees be less able to communicate with their employers and, therefore, less able to succeed in the workforce? Or will the new skills developed through hours of cell phone use and texting result in a workforce that is more nimble and more qualified to multi-talk? Will Millennials be unable to communicate face to face with their children, or will the new tools available to them bring their families closer together? Will the new technologies bring us closer together as a community, or result in fewer actual friends and a life that is more isolated and less fulfilling? With technology advancing at the speed of light and human interaction changing just as quickly, it may be impossible to predict the results. However, everyone should be aware that human interaction as was once known may have already changed forever.
It is important to consider limitations to this study. The survey used a convenience sample, and therefore, cannot be generalized to a greater population. Additionally, the survey used a volunteer sample of self-selected subjects to participate in the study, potentially bringing about biases. Another potential bias is possible because only individuals with a Facebook account had access to the survey, which excluded students who do not regularly check or use the social media platform. There was also an extreme gender bias since 86% of respondents were female, even though females consist of approximately 60% of Elon University’s student body.
The author would like to thank Dr. David Copeland, A.J. Fletcher Professor at Elon University, for his constant support, guidance, and advice, without which the article could not be published.
Appendix A: Survey Questions and Responses
Appendix B: Field Observations
Notes: Alamance represents observations in front of the Alamance Fountain between 12:10-12:25 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2014; Moseley represents observations on the patio in front of the Moseley Center between 2:05- 2:20 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2014; Lakeside represents observations inside of Lakeside Dining Hall between 12:10- 12:25 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2014; McEwen represents observations on the patio in front of McEwen Dining Hall between 2:05-2:20 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2014. Texting/Holding (Alone) represents the individuals observed who were either texting or holding their phones while alone; Talking/Listening (Alone) represents the individuals observed who were involved in a phone conversation or listening to music with headphones while alone; No technology (With others) represents the individuals observed who were with other people and not using technology; Using technology (With others) represents the individuals observed who were either talking on the phone, texting, or using a computer or tablet while with others; No technology (Alone) represents the individuals observed who were not using technology while alone.