Do cell phones kill our desire to connect?

U. MARYLAND (US) — Though cell phones are usually considered devices that connect people, they may actually make users less socially minded.

University of Maryland marketing professors Anastasiya Pocheptsova and Rosellina Ferraro, with graduate student, Ajay T. Abraham, conducted a series of experiments on test groups of cell phone users.

The researchers found that after a short period of cell phone use, the subjects were less inclined to volunteer for a community service activity when asked, compared to the control-group counterparts.

The cell phone users were also less persistent in solving word problems—even though they knew their answers would translate to a monetary donation to charity. The decreased focus on others held true even when participants were merely asked to draw a picture of their cell phones and think about how they used them.

The study involved separate sets of college student subjects—both men and women and generally in their early twenties. “We would expect a similar pattern of effects with people from other age groups,” says Ferraro.

“Given the increasing pervasiveness of cell phones, it does have the potential to have broad social implications.”

The authors cite previous research in explaining a root cause of their findings: “The cell phone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong.” This results in reducing one’s desire to connect with others or to engage in empathic and prosocial behavior.

Prosocial behavior, as defined in the study, is action intended to benefit another person or society as a whole.

The study also distinguished its subjects from users of other social media—Facebook users—in one of the tests. The authors found that participants felt more connected to others because of their cell phones than because of their Facebook accounts, suggesting that this difference in connectedness was the underlying driver of the observed phenomenon.

The authors are conducting related investigations studying the effects of using other types of technology on prosocial behavior.

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