The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication

By Emily Drago
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |


Recent technological advancements have had a drastic impact on the way individuals communicate. In this research, previous studies were analyzed, field observations were conducted, and an online survey was administered to determine the level of engagement individuals have with their cell phones, other technologies and with each other in face-to-face situations. Findings suggest that technology has a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. Despite individuals’ awareness of the decrease of face-to-face communication as a result of technology, more than 62% of individuals observed on Elon’s campus continue to use mobile devices in the presence of others.

I. Introduction

Celebrity couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard star in a recent Samsung Galaxy Tab S ad that follows them on a day in their lives repeatedly distracted by technology. The couple decides to ditch their plans to go hiking and, instead, spend the day completely attached to their tablets. The commercial highlights the couple playing games on their separate devices at dinner, video chatting each other from different rooms in their house, and missing a black-tie event to watch a movie on their tablet instead. While it seems as though this should be a PSA promoting face-to-face interaction rather than screen-to-screen, it is just another ploy to sell more technology. This ad, along with many others, has emphasized the fact that as the use of devices and technology that allow people to communicate digitally increase, face-to-face interaction decreases.

Little by little, technology has become an integral part of the way that people communicate with one another and has increasingly taken the place of face-to-face communication. Due to the rapid expansion of technology, many individuals fear that people may be too immersed in this digital world and not present enough in the real world. In reaction to the overwhelming replacement of face time with screen time, a Massachusetts family decided to implement an Internet Sabbath each weekend in which no video games, computers or smartphones can be used. The father, William Powers, expressed the difficulty of the weekly detox stating, “It almost had an existential feeling of, ‘I don’t know who I am with the Internet gone.’ But after a few months it hardened into a habit and we all began to realize we were gaining a lot from it” (Adler, 2013). Many others have expressed shared concerns regarding the overuse of technology and its impact on face-to-face communication, so much so that some Los Angeles restaurants have banned the use of mobile devices to ensure customers enjoy both their meal and their company (Forbes, 2013). Throughout this study, the author sought to answer questions regarding technology usage and investigated whether technology affects face-toface communication negatively.

II. Literature Review

Before analyzing the effect of technology on face-to-face communication, it is important to understand the rapid growth of various technologies and their current usage throughout the United States. Over the past few decades, technology usage has grown significantly. Per the U.S. Census, 76% of households reported having a computer in 2011, compared with only 8% in 1984 (File, 2012). Of that number, 72% of households reported accessing the Internet, up from just 18% in 1998, the first year the Census asked about Internet use (File, 2012). As of 2013, 90% of American adults had a cell phone of some kind, and for people under the age of 44, the number was closer to 97% (Madrigal, 2013). The drastic increase in technology usage is especially noticeable in younger generations. One study, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found people ages 8 to 18 spent more time on media than on any other activity – at an average of 7.5 hours a day (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).

Many studies have been conducted regarding technology’s effect on social interaction and face-toface communication since the rise of cellphone and social media usage in the late 2000s. As Przybylski and Weinstein of the University of Essex wrote in 2013, “Recent advancements in communication technology have enabled billions of people to connect more easily with people great distances away, yet little has been known about how the frequent presence of these devices in social settings influences face-to-face interactions” (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2012, p. 1).

One study examined the relationship between the presence of mobile devices and the quality of reallife, in-person social interactions. In a naturalistic field experiment, researchers found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device (Misra, Cheng, Genevie, & Yuan, 2014). People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern, while those conversing in the presence of a mobile device reported lower levels of empathy (Misra et al., 2014).

In another study, Przybylski and Weinstein (2012) showed similar results that proved the presence of mobile communication devices in social settings interferes with human relationships. In two separate experiments, the authors found evidence that these devices have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality, especially notable when individuals are engaging in personally meaningful topics.

Though much research has shown the negative effects of technology on face-to-face interaction, one study found that cell phone use in public might make individuals more likely to communicate with strangers. In 2011, Campbell and Kwak (2011) examined whether and how mobile communication influences the extent to which one engages face to face with new people in public settings. By accounting for different types of cell phone uses, the study found evidence that mobile phone use in public actually facilitated talking with copresent strangers, for those who frequently rely on cell phones to get and exchange information about news.

Brignall and van Valey (2005) analyzed the effects of technology among “current cyber-youth” – those who have grown up with the Internet as an important part of their everyday life and interaction rituals. The two authors discovered that due to the pervasive use of the Internet in education, communication and entertainment, there has been a significant decrease in face-to-face interaction among youth. They suggest that the decrease in the amount of time youth spend interacting face-to-face may eventually have “significant consequences for their development of social skills and their presentation of self” (p. 337).

Many other authors have focused specifically on technology’s effect on personal relationships. In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle (2012) examined the effects of technology on familial relationships. After interviewing more than 300 young people and 150 adults, Turkle found that children were often times the ones complaining about their parents’ obsession with technology. Turkle discovered that many children believed their parents paid less attention to them than to their smartphones, often times neglecting to interact with them face to face until they had finished responding to emails.

Contrary to many researchers’ beliefs that technology impacts face-to-face communication negatively, Baym, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, does not share these concerns. Rather, Baym believes that research suggests digital communications enhance relationships and that “the evidence consistently shows that the more you communicate with people using devices, the more likely you are to communicate with those people face to face” (Adler, 2013).

The literature review above dominantly shows that the use of mobile technologies for recreational purposes typically affects face-to-face interactions with strangers, acquaintances, and families alike in a negative manner. Based on the review, the following three research questions were asked in this study:

  • RQ1. How does the use of technology affect people’s ability to communicate face to face?
  • RQ2. Does the mere presence of technology affect people’s ability to communicate with individuals in a public place?
  • RQ3. Has the increase of technology decreased both the quantity and quality of face-to-face interactions?

III. Methods

The author conducted field observations and a survey to measure the level of engagement Elon students have with their cell phones, other technologies, and each other in face-to-face situations.

The survey was administered to Elon University students who were recruited using a non-probability sample via Facebook and email. Students were asked 11 questions regarding their technology use, habits, perceptions of face-to-face communication in the presence of technology, and engagement both face to face and screen to screen, which would help better answer the question of whether technology has a negative effect on face-to-face communication (For a full list of survey questions, reference Appendix A).

The survey resulted in 100 responses.

Based on the survey findings, field observations were conducted at four highly populated areas on campus, including dining halls. Observations were conducted during heavy foot-traffic times, including inbetween classes and during lunch hours, when students would most likely be present and interacting with others. A variety of different interactions between other students and technology were recorded, including those texting or talking on the phone, those interacting with others, and those who did not have contact with devices. (Refer to Appendix B to see a full description of field observations).

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