Note to Self: Pay attention

“Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies. In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds.” Misra, S 2006 (as cited in Jacobs, T 2014)

As described by Misra, the urge to constantly check our mobile phones is a constant distraction in social settings and public spaces. This was certainly the case when I conducted a small social experiment with two friends at lunch yesterday. We went to a local pub and sat down at our table. The first thing I noticed was that both of them (females, aged 20) set their phones on the table with their wallets. This is what I would normally do too, but I had made a conscious decision to leave it in my bag on the seat next to me. For the purpose of this test, both girls, Erika and Bek, were unaware I was observing their attention in the presence of their devices.  ec166d494c183fbb49191a0b606673e1

After looking at the menus and ordering our food, in between conversation waiting for our food to arrive (approx. 20 mins), Erika picked up her phone four times and Bek clicked the home screen to check for any notifications twice, and actually unlocked to reply to a message once. There was only one noticeable instance Erika became distracted and diverted her attention away from the conversation when she asked us to repeat what we had said. She also created a new conversation topic based on something she spotted whilst scrolling her Facebook newsfeed. When our food arrived, both girls picked up their phones to Snapchat our meals. Upon finishing our meals, Bek finished first and whilst waiting for us to finish looked through her phone, a common practice as mentioned in my previous blog post. I too finished and couldn’t help check my phone for notifications, but did not actually unlock it.

Although I had consciously set my phone down and was focused on watching Erika and Bek, I didn’t feel the need to pick mine up, however I found myself glancing at the pub TV every now and again to watch a football rematch, causing me to realise that other forms of media can be just as distracting. After the lunch test I asked them if they realised how often they checked their phones. They looked at me funny and I then explained why I asked and the purpose of my observation. I told them both what I had observed. Erika sheepishly laughed and said she usually doesn’t think twice about checking her phone, especially when someone has texted her. Bek agreed but mentioned she wouldn’t normally check her phone during formal occasions or dinners/lunches. We all agreed that it’s second nature to place our phones on the table or to use our mobiles whilst watching TV, studying or listening to music, all cases of losing attention. They both consented to having their first names published in this post.

Overall, looking back on the experience, as highlighted when Bek and I were guiding most of the conversation during times Erika was on her phone, an implication of mobile devices is they cause our attention to be shared between two places, our mobile and the co-presence setting (Hoflich & Hartmann 2006 p.227). To highlight this further, the iPhone Effect study was conducted by Misra et al. in 2014 to analyse the presence of mobile devices and the quality of real-life in-person social interactions. The study involved 200 participants split into pairs who each sat down and discussed either a meaningful or trivial topic as a nearby lab assistant watched on (Jacobs, T 2014). Afterwards participants answered a series of questions to measure feelings of interpersonal connectedness and empathetic concern. The results found that:

“If either participant placed a mobile communication device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the course of the 10-minute conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling, compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices” – (Misra et al. 2014 as cited in Jacobs, T 2014)

This experiment and these results have now made me think twice about where I place my phone when I’m in a social setting or with friends. In particular I’ve set the goal to keep my phone out of sight (and hopefully out of mind) whenever I go to lunch or dinner. It is also worthwhile to consider doing this when watching TV and definitely when studying, to help focus my attention on the task I’m supposed to be doing.

Hoflich, J & Hartmann, M 2006, Mobile Communication in Everyday Life: Ethnographic Views, Observations and Reflections, Frank & Timme GmbH, Berlin 

Jacobs, T 2014, ‘Even just the Presence of a Smartphone Lowers the Quality of in-person Conversations,’ Pacific Standard, July 14, viewed 18 September 2016 <;

Image: Pinterest, viewed 18 September 2016 <;

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