Cell Phones, Communication and Avoidance


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This paper is has outlined specific reasons for the increasing attachment to mobile phones. It gives more specific ways in which the increasing attachment of people to their mobile phones is slowly affected their life styles especially its impact on social interaction. The study utilized both the quantitative and the qualitative research methods in a theoretical model. 10 families and a total of over 200 students participated in the study. Direct observation method was used especially to study the frequency and the effect of phone use on interaction in the public places and the way in which people seek to excuse themselves and communicate the need for privacy. Questionnaire was also administered to complement the information obtained from direct observation.

The study found out that there is an increasing trend of mobile phone usage replacing interpersonal communication. This is necessitated by the increasing percentage of those who own cell phones and the advancement of phone features. The two features have given way to various new applications which are more addictive than the initial basic applications. The study also revealed that some of the reasons people give for their increasing use of phone include the need to justify their solitary existence and that of privacy. Part of the reason for the increasing use of phones is found in the individualistic nature of the today’s society especially that of America. The most affected by phone use is the family which is slowly losing its conception. Today’s children have no idea of how to socially interact with others while families are quickly being turned into offices. Overall, personal interaction is quickly being erased.


Do mobile phones harm or improve interpersonal interaction? This is a question that has often crossed many people’s minds. It has remained debatable with a section of both scientists and the sociologists taking different sides on the debate. Making use of the specific ways in which people are using their mobile phones, this paper seek to address the causes and effects of the strong attachment developing between people and their mobile phones in the today’s world. In specific the paper will investigate the argument that there is an increasing attachment to the mobile phones and that it has a negative impact on interpersonal relations and our social aspect of life in general.

The effect of mobile phones on interpersonal relationship can be observed everywhere today. It is too much to an extent that in certain situations, such interactions as caused by the users having to receive their calls is expected. Mobile phones have been used by many people to avoid conversing with others especially in a family set up. People are so busy even to offer the normal simple greetings like wishing one another a good day. People use phones to justify their solitary existence. Some extremists even fake a phone call to avoid the usual conversation with people. Texting while walking or driving has become a normal phenomenon irrespective of the increasing number of accidents and deaths that it causes.

The question that remains to be answered is why there is this faster transformation from interpersonal relations. My main focus for this thesis was to investigate the fact that we are becoming less sociable and even isolating ourselves because of our cell phones. I was interested in knowing why people avoid conversation or interaction with other people to have time with their mobile phones. As much as this research will be backed by what has already been done, it will without doubt address the new aspect of challenges arising from the use of mobile phones.

Literature Review

Cell phone usage can be defined as any application of the cell phone as a tool. From the review of the existing materials, people use mobile phones in sending and receiving messages, taking pictures, accessing the internet, sending a photo or video to friends, sending or receiving e-mail, downloading of various applications, playing games and music, recording and watching of videos, accessing social networking sites like face book, and twitter posting of photos or videos online, and e-banking.

The topic of the social use of cell phones has attracted the attention of most researchers in the communication field. However, the majority of the researches which have been done majorly focus on the various ways in which cell phones use affect social interactions in the public places. Most researchers have associated cell phone usage in social places with negativity. There argument is that whenever an individual begins to use his or her phone in a public place it automatically generate a disturbance to proximate others.

It is increasingly become hard for phone users to differentiate between the public places and the private places. Such concepts are never thought of at least before one uses the phone. These changes in conceptions have enabled cell phones usage to infiltrate such public spheres as restaurant, theatres, public transportation, parks and streets. According to the previous research, most of those who use cell phones in public places utilize it as a form of social exclusion and privacy. Many of such people are also those who would want to justify their solitary existence.

Even though the mobile phone is one of the greatest invention in the 20th century, people, especially the young generation are increasingly becoming addicted to using the mobile phone. It is becoming so hard for them to stay away from their phone. They use their phones anytime, anywhere and anyhow without caring the harm that they cause to those who are around them. Studies have shown that people are increasingly spending more time with their phones compared to the time they spend interacting with friends and relatives.

Other scholars have argued that this may be because of the perceived benefits that the mobile phones present especially to the younger generation. To them it has become increasingly hard for today’s generation to even consider taking their time to meditate on the various negative impacts that have resulted from the use of the mobile phone. Studies have shown that when asked about their knowledge on the effect of mobile phones on social relations, many people still just see the contributions of phones to enhance communication.

Even though there is an indication of an increase in the knowledge that mobile phones are quickly replacing the initial and useful face to face communication, most people have not thought of its negative impacts. Studies have revealed a concern among the older generation that the initial roles of interpersonal communication like bringing people together and strengthening the social bonds, will be the thing of the past. Most of them foresee a society held together by loose bonds, a situation in which even the immediate neighbors will not bother to know one another. This is already taking shape as the children of today are missing even the basic interaction skills.

The Nuclear family is not an exception. Eckardt noted that today most parents live far from their children while depending on the few interactions they have with them via the phone. Even those parents who live together with their families spend much time with their phones and never bother taking quality time with their children and spouses. Many families are falling apart because of the increasing use of mobile phones. The issues that would have been shared amicably between the spouses breed into violence breaking our today’s family apart. Most parents are ready to spend more on cell phone cards every month even than they spend on their own families.

As we think that the mobile phones are making our lives more and more convenient, we are increasingly allowing the mobile phones to become part and parcel of us. This is indicated by the increasing number of people becoming addicted to their mobile phones. People talk on the cell phones while walking. It is astonishing that even when the use of phone attracts penalties, the affected individuals do not see the need to change. Most drivers use their phones even when they are driving along the highways (Reid & Fraser, 2005). Most of them confess having caused or been involved in accidents because they themselves or other drivers were either listening to cell phone conversations or texting while driving on the road. Even with most states banning the use of cell phones while driving the habit is still on the increase.

Several people have also been victims of having to pay fines for using phones in public places especially those who pick up calls in places like the library, trains and theatres. Some people also use the phone features like the Bluetooth and the camera in ways that jeopardize the possibility of them freely interacting with others (Nurallah, 2009). An example which is common among the young generation is taking of others’ photos in public places normally without their consent. Such photos may be posted in the internet destroying others reputation. Such acts normally cause trouble in the public places especially when detected. Much is made of cell phone use in public places with the older generation being generally scornful of youngsters’ manner of using their phones especially in public areas.

This is becoming a habit in today’s society with young people having taken SMS to a whole new level. Many previous shows that with the prizes of phones and the subsequent cost of phone usage being lowered further, more people will be addicted to their phones. The cost of sending a text and call rates are increasingly becoming cheaper day by day. The SMS is also common because it saves time in passing a message to a number of individuals at the same time. SMS is also seen to up hold privacy a virtue that makes it more appealing to the youths. It is majorly used in places where talking on the phone might be inappropriate.

Some researchers have also noted that cell phone users seem to be less aware of their surrounding and that this reduces their attention and awareness of certain features in the local social interaction. This is an aspect some scholars have described as fragmentation of attention in mobile interaction. They use this concept to explain the fact that whenever one uses the mobile phone, they have to cognitively and strategic withdraw themselves from the competing tasks which may be deemed as less important. This is seen many a times when people who were initially walking together and perhaps even storing, begin to slow down because of the need to either chat on phone or send a text message. Many a times, people seek to excuse themselves as a sign of their need for privacy.

It is without doubt that much use of mobile phone use has robbed people the pleasure of direct interaction. Another way in which the use of mobile phone has affected interaction is in potential of causing various misunderstanding between people. This is especially so in cases where people use wrong grammar in their texts. Such may include wrong punctuation marks or misspell. These aspects easily cause misunderstanding between individuals. They can potentially destroy the relationship between two people. Several researchers have demonstrated that cell phone usage affects social interaction by both isolating and connecting involved persons.

Whenever one is using a cell phone, it also affects the people around them. The phone users are therefore both social and antisocial at the same time. Banjo and his colleagues concluded that cell phone use in public places can potentially have negative effects on interaction with approximately others. They noted that while on the cell phones, we are cognitively lessaccessible to our immediate external surroundings.

The trend in the replacement of personal interaction by cell phones

Trends are showing that the society is continuously being washed into technology. A study in America showed that 93 percent of the Americans now use cell phones or wireless devices. One third of this population uses smart phones. This has led to increased cases of addiction as the smart phone features enable people to browse the web and check the e-mail on their phones. According to a report released by an industry trade group, from June 2009 to June 2010, cell phone subscribers sent 1.8 trillion messages. This showed an increase of 33% from the messages sent a year before.

This means that people are increasingly becoming addicted into using their phones. People are even turning out the people whom they are with in the same room. They no longer consider which places are appropriate for surfing. People take call while they are out for dinner, text or check e-mail while on a date with their spouses. Some sociologists have underlined the need to connect with people in person. They are worried that a part from adverse effects of phone use on human to human interaction, some very important aspect of culture like the art of story telling are slowly being destroyed.

They noted that phone use was taking a worrying trend. As the phones were just innovated, it was it was specifically used to convey important and urgent messages and not many people owned phones. People therefore had to meet directly to share about what was affecting them. Today owning a cell phone is understood as a necessity and even children own theirs. This has limited the communication between people. Parents can be at work place to talk to their children over family issues, friends chat together for hours via mobile phones. This means that they often lack what to share about when they meet in school.

Mobile phones and privacy

Writing about the presumptions of privacy, Banjo and his colleagues explained that any time one uses his/her phone, they send a message that they want to be alone. Our behaviors whenever we use a phone in public also communicate that we are not alone. This is to say that when people are alone in a public places, there is a common feeling that they need to engage in activities to legitimize their solitary presence. Such people justify themselves from the fact that talking on a phone obviously indicate that they are at least involved in other social relations.

Most of the researches done in the peer reviewed article were surveys which were handed out and filled by University students while others were handed out on the street. The studies made use of the people who used SMS frequently. Other methods common among the researchers were personal interviews and telephone surveys. The researches utilized both the landline and the random digital dial with cell phones. Some researchers also used observational studies by measuring social interaction. They observed such aspects as; gaze direction, social cues, body communication and verbal engagement.

Research Questions and Hypothesis

Having studied the works of other scholars who have researched and written in the related subject matters, I felt that it would be interesting instigating a study that seeks to answer in depth a number of questions. Such questions include: how and when do people use their mobile phones? How do people explain and/or justify the constant use of their mobile phones? Is the individualistic nature of the American society having a role to play in the way we use our cell phones today? And finally, at what cost has technology replaced personal interaction? I also formulated some hypothesis to guide my study. The first hypothesis was that people today use their mobile phones for everything they possibly can. My second hypothesis was that the constant use of mobile phones has developed over a short time and has become a dependency for most people. I also argue that the use of cell phones will cause destruction or lack of involvement and the awareness of our environment due to our limited cognitive capacity.


Having noted that none of the past studies employed multi-methods and longitudinal research designs, I was determined to add value to their work by using these approaches. I therefore designed a study which allows for the collection of data using both the qualitative and quantitative methods. My sample consisted of 5 families and more than 200 students from UH campus. My major target groups for this study were the University students. I used them mostly because they are the easiest to reach, and also because they are the perfect age group for my topic of study.

For both methods, the setting of the research was in natural places. My first method and which was majorly used was direct observation. This was done in a natural environment to enhance the effectiveness of the study. A part from observing the types and the nature of cell phone usage in the selected places, I was also interested in noting the common body languages used by most phone users. For my experiment, I also chose a design that would allow me to also carry out my observation of the participants under the controlled environment.

The controlled experiments were used to study the factors that influence the nature of the effect the phone use would have on interpersonal relationship. I therefore had to slightly manipulate the environment to make the situation look normal. From my 200 students, 100 were used for the controlled experiment. The 100 were further divided into 10 groups. For every group of study I identified 10 students. Of the 10, 1 was to be the target of study, 5 were to be his/her close friends, 4 were to be distant others but hi/her classmates. This identification of the participants was done early to enable me to prepare them for the study.

One of the close friends in each case were to offer the persons whose phone use behavior were to be studied lunch in their usual place of taking lunch (cafeteria). The friends were to later excuse themselves after ensuring that the targets had sat around the same table with either the already identified distant classmates or the friends in first and second situation simultaneously. The second close friend would then call the targets. While calling, they carefully allowed them to set the speed, tone and be in control of the call duration and the subject of the study. The first caller would then alert the distant classmate who would also call while equally leaving the target to be in full control of the call. The same process would repeat it self with the same target but while with his other three identified close friends.

These processes were repeated with 5 groups of 10 for both the female students and the male students. As the calling was going on, I sat strategically in the observational room of the cafeteria. I noted all the behaviors involved in the process of phone use by the target paying special attention to the way they excused themselves, whether they moved away from the others who were to continue with the interaction, and also the duration of call. The third scenario was to leave the individuals alone in the room to enable me note the time they took to start using the phones and whether the entry of another individual in the room would make him/her to stop.

I also coded cell phone accessibility noting whether the targets in each case received the calls or not. I used 0 to imply no cell phone accessibility and 1 to represent cell phone accessibility. In certain cases, I also contacted both the users close friends and the distant others to come back into the room approximately same time after the participants had started making a call but at different intervals. Using both the target’s best friends and others who were simply the classmates was to enable me to analyze the effect of the status on the user of phones.

A part from the controlled study at the cafeteria, I also observed the ways in which students were using their phones in different places like lecture halls, along the walk ways and the public resting places. I targeted those who were walking and using their phones at the same time. I also conducted a quantitative study by counting the number of people who walked by me on their phones in a certain amount of time and in their certain places. My focus of the study was both on the various ways in which the cell phones are used and their effect on interaction between the user and the others.

I also expanded my scope of study to include 5 family set ups. 3 of the families were those in which parents though go to work would return back in the evening. The other 2 families were those in which the father was living away from the rest of the family. I was specifically interested in knowing the effect of phone use on the interpersonal relationship in a family set up.

I also administered the questionnaire which was designed to ask an array of questions. My main areas of focus were to find out the specific ways in which people are using their phones and also the specific instances they are using them. Other questions were about cell phone ownership and frequency of cell phone use. I also addressed questions seeking to know the reasons people give to justify their continued addiction of phone use. There was also a consideration for places of phone accessibility and places of phone usage. The questionnaires were filled by 100 students including both the male and female students in the ration of 1:1. The ratio for my study remained the same because this reflects the real situation in the University.

A part from the two methods, I also conducted ethnography study as a qualitative research. I sat and observed a few different groups of people in different but strategically specifically and strategically chosen settings. I also conducted little interview post observations. I also used the empirical model to examine the perceived relationship between cell-phones use and social interaction with approximate others.


After the design of my study, I contacted a section of my participants as I deemed appropriate. This was especially done for the participants who were targeted to fill the questionnaire, and those who were going to be useful in the controlled experiments. This enabled me to secure their consent to make my job simple during the actual study. In terms of the questionnaire, the debriefing sessions enabled the participants to answer the questions to the best of their ability.


The first hypothesis examined the various ways in which people use cell-phones especially in public areas. It found out that calling and texting were the most common ways in which people use their cell phones. However, the research also showed a quick increase in the use of cell phones for entertainment purposes especially among the collage age youths. The research showed that the added entertainment features like the face book and twitter were turning out to be even more addictive than texting. Explaining the reason for the increasing trend in the use of phone, one of my student respondents explained that even though the cost of mobile phone usage is great, much of it is invisible.

The most common concern among the respondents was the possible effect of phone usage on the future generation. The result from the interview showed that the today’s kids and the majority of the upcoming youths have no idea of how to interact and read someone’s face. The respondents noted that people usuually say things in the internet that they would otherwise not be able to say in person during direct interaction. The results indicate that soon, the coming generation would be basically an electronic society as the neighborhood increasingly looses intercommunion.

The research made it clear that families are quickly being transferred into offices, reducing the family conceptions at the same time. Family and school are quickly being taken over by the leisure activities. I agree that it is good for people to take their time talking with others around the world. My only concern however is that, this is basically an artificial community and lacks real world face human interaction. I strongly feel that when such kind of interaction is emphasized over personal interaction, our societal existence will quickly loose its meaning. The families are not exceptional. While at home after work, parents are increasingly being concern about their work than their own family. The families are being transferred into offices where silence has to be maintained at the expense of social interaction.

The results also showed that cell phone usage has become a disturbing tool when operating in public places. A section of my respondents also confirmed that they engage in the use of mobile phones to legitimize their solitary presence. This concurred with the findings of initial researches. The research showed that just a mere presence of cell phone can lead to cell phone use when one is alone in the public area. This is also so whenever one is doing something which he regards to be of less important. Most of the phone users derived their legitimacy from the fact that talking on phone can indicate the existence of other social relations. From my observation, I can therefore state that by clutching to the phone, individuals make themselves inaccessible by declaring immunity from social interaction.

The study was also interested in finding out how the aspect of phone privacy affects interactions. Generally, the study found out that people use their mobile phones to signal to approximate others that they want to be left a lone. At the same time the use of phone also communicates that their users are not alone. The most common signs that most people use to communicate the need for privacy were the body position and the facial expression.

The study was also interested in finding out how the use of cell phone invades and distorts the boundaries in public space. Among my respondents was the view that the cell phones have created an alternative reality for its users. This has encouraged people to dwell in a more virtual habitat other than the physical habitat surrounding us. Those who confessed to have been affected by the act at a given time confirmed that the private nature of the cell phones may potentially be viewed as intrusive to engagement of social interaction in public space. Other respondents also indicated that they exhibit certain territorial behaviors and movements to help them establish their units of space and separation from others in shared space.

On the ways of communicating the need for privacy, it was clear from the observations that most individuals use such behaviors as cupping their chin and turning their gaze in order to communicate their privacy. It is thus right to say that cell phone users use the device as a means of establishing their boundaries in the public sphere. The most astonishing response was the one I obtained from one of the grade two pupils while conducting my studies in one of the families. In describing how she alerts the parents of the need of her privacy, she described they way she turns her back to other family members and speak at a lower tone with her head downwards. When interrogated further, she said that she does that so that she is not bothered by the other members of the family after speaking to her friends. This indicates that cell phones can successfully act as a channel for isolation from the immediate environment.

Such behaviors seem to have been normalized to the extent that whenever an individual retreats to use his/her mobile phone in the presence of another, the other would simply involve her/himself in other activities. This indicates that people are increasingly recognizing the need for the caller’s territory because of the uncontrollable and the addictive nature of phone usage. Such activities may include reading newspapers with the major aim of avoiding any tendency to intrude.

I also asked my respondents whether there were challenges in having to use the phones while at the same time interacting with those around them. They indicated that the dual task of interacting and participating in local social interaction and managing a concurrent cell phone conversation usually presents a difficult task for them. This concur with the findings of other researchers that such a situation presents a kind of cognitive overload for the phone user. The study equally revealed that people find cell phones conversation disturbing when they are engaged in a joint activity with the cell phone users.

The study also seek to find out possible factors that affect the extent to which one may use his/her phone use while with approximate others. It was revealed that when one is chatting face to face with a proximate friend, he/she is less likely to make a call to the distant person as one feel obligated to the person one is with. The effect of status was revealed in the way the users handled their obligation to proximate others and they manner in which they indicated the need for privacy prior to cell phone conversation. This was different during my observation at the cafeteria. It was clear that the effect would even be greater in cases where the distant other is the one who initiate the call than when the phone users themselves do.

Most cell phone users confessed their knowledge of their obligation to both the person on the phone and also the person they are with physically. They seemed to recognize that there was need to always deliver to their expectations. Some of them confessed that in certain circumstances, managing the expectations for one relationship may be harmful to the other. They explained that in such a situation the callers are forced to negotiate their social relations on two fronts. This may involve passing of non-verbal cues to the approximate others, or asking distant others to wait. Such findings were especially so in a family set up. In some families where phone use had not taken its toll, the family members were trained never to receive or make calls during what they called family time. Still, this brought problems between the youths and their parents. The youths being conversant with the current technology felt that they should be left to be in control of the issues pertaining to technology.


From the beginning of my thesis, my aim has been to develop theoretical model for which the social effect of the cell phone usage in public can be empirically tested. In the case of making phone calls while with others, it was clear that the length for which the call may be made will depend on whether the cell phone user initiated the call or she/he is basically receiving the call and the status of the caller. Whenever a call is made or a text is received and the receiver has to either call or reply to the text, the phone users experience an obligation toward both the distant and the proximate others. They have to weigh whether to receive the call or not and if so how to excuse himself or herself from the proximate other.

The situation makes the phone users to show a desire of privacy. They would want to excuse themselves so as not to find themselves in situations in which they will have to distribute their attention between the caller and the proximate other. Whichever, option the user may take, their interaction with the proximate others shall have been altered. Although researches already indicate that social interaction with strangers is minimal, my model revealed that the presence of the cell phone reduces interaction even further. This affect our social responsibility to proximate others be they familiar or known.

In an attempt to examine the relationship between cell phone usage and interaction, I studied the various situations in which people’s interaction are affected by the cell phone usage. The result of my study indicated that the accessibility and usage of cell phones may inhibit users from continuing with their initial level of interaction with the others. This is true even when they are the immediate family members. Consistent with the other reviewed literature, the accessibility and usage of cell phone is increasingly creating a form of exclusion and social isolation that hinder users from recognizing that others also need their attention. The fact that cell phones uses inhibited altruistic behavior is theoretically important because it implies reduced obligation to proximate others.

My study also seemed to concur with the findings of most other researches that the accessibility and usage of cell phones also has the potential to inhibit non-verbal social cues such as smiling that are useful in social interaction. This was clear among those observed in the cafeteria. Those who were addicted to the phones seemed gloomy and dull than those who were not. It was clearly indicated that the accessibility of the cell phone may cause cell phone users to lose the human nature without realizing. This may only be seen in the several occasions in which the users exhibit non friendly behaviors towards other people. My findings clearly underlined the role of privacy in interaction. Privacy is created and enhanced by phone use.

Limitations of the study

It was challenging for me to manipulating the variables used in the study. My attempt to control the environment in the study also proved to be a limitation. This was because both the cell phone use behavior and social interaction are activities that many people can do even without recognizing them. However, the observation of the individuals in their natural and public environments made my result to portray the real picture of what happens in the real life situation.


The findings in this study are useful for both the phone users and the companies. Right form the family set up, we can utilize the findings from the study to help us improve our every day relationship with others. Even as we celebrate the various contributions of phone usage in today’s society, the study called on the need to take precaution because we may risk loosing very useful values in the future generation. The study may also potentially influence the phone users to consider reducing their destruction in the public spheres. Having brought out clearly the need of interpersonal reaction, I strongly feel that there may be some improvement on the amount of time people set aside to interact with others.

The families may especially gain from this study by improving their interpersonal interaction. This will enable the initially addicted family members to recognize their obligation and the usefulness of interacting with those around them. These implications are not just empirical, but I believe that they serve to demonstrate the dangers that mobile communication technologies may pose if not used properly.

Finally, I believe that there are possible solutions to the challenges presented by the use of mobile phones. First, there should be public campaigns aimed at making the public aware of the effect of the mobile phones on social interactions. The second recommendation would be for the relevant government agencies to come together with other stakeholders and develop a set of social ethics that address proper cell phone usage.

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