Close your eyes and imagine this scenario… or keep them open because you’ll have to read, it’s totally up to you.
- You are walking around in the local shopping centre, or down the street, or around the university campus.
- You look up and there they are. It could be that person from high school you kind of sort of know but haven’t spoken to in a while. Or that person that you went on a date with once or twice, and they were interested, but you just weren’t that into them.
- You’ve seen them, but have they seen you?
- Making eye-contact will mean an awkward conversation, talking about how they are and what they’ve been getting up to. You did not prepare yourself for mindless small-talk today.
- But how can you avoid this?
- Turn back and walk the other way? No, no, no… not subtle at all.
- Ahhhh, you could walk into that shop to your left….. hmmmm no, that’s a lingerie store, and what would they think if they did see you walk into there.
- There’s not much time! Think goddamnit! Think!
- Eureka! You have the answer.
- You slip you hand into your pocket while saying a little prayer to your lord and saviour Steve Jobs.
- There it is. That little block of aluminium and glass.
- You swipe to unlock, and open up messages.
- A fake laugh just to show really interesting your life is while looking at your phone.
- You’re ever-so-slightly looking up through your eyebrows to see how close you are.
- You both pass each other.
- Crisis averted.
- But as you do, you see that they had their phone out as well.
- They were probably doing the same thing as you.
Now for some of you, this may not be a very familiar experience. But for others, I can guarantee it is. What I’m talking about is the phenomenon I’d like to call ‘Phone-Shielding’.
I guess it would not be wrong to say that we see these devices as very much an extension of ourselves. With these tools we are connected to the people who mean the most at all times But on a much grander scale, we have the entire world at our finger tips. While this wonderful instrument of socialisation and knowledge is in the palm of our hand, are we forgetting how to act when face-to-face? I think this is a genuine concern for people of my generation and younger. The ones who have grown up with a device in their hand.
So let us look a little more closely at this concept of ‘phone-shielding’. If you were to ask around, I doubt you would find many people who would openly tell you that they use their phone to avoid interactions. I can imagine very few adults would own up to the act, but for people my age there would be considerably more who have lots to say. I for one, am happy to own up to this terrible habit. Yes, I’m calling it a terrible habit. I’m actively contributing to the loss of ‘real-life’ social interacting skills… I’m a hypocrite.
However, it’s not something that I only see myself taking part in. When at work, it’s easy to observe many different people also using this avoidance technique. The worst culprit of them all is the retail centre’s security guard. If I’m walking anywhere near him, out comes his phone and he misses a wonderful opportunity to exchange a “What’s up”. But it’s not just me that this happens to, my work colleagues experience the same anti-social behaviour. We have ourselves a ‘serial-shielder’. I went to ask for a comment on his phone usage to avoid interactions, but he pretended to get a phone call when he saw me coming.
Well, the wonderful people over at the Pew Research Center for Internet, Science & Tech conducted a survey in 2011 of Americans and found some interesting results. They found that “13% of cell phone owners pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with the people around them.” When you take a look at the sample of young adults (those between the ages of 18 and 29), that number rose to a whopping 30%. We must take into consideration here that this survey was completed over 4 years ago, and I would say that it is pretty safe to assume that our phone usage worldwide has grown. Another point to ad is that this was a survey amongst Americans, a culture to which we are very different.
More recently, the Pew Research Center released another survey about how Americans view mobile phone etiquette. The ‘always on’ nature of mobile phone connectivity has brought about new challenges for users about when to be with those around them, and when it is okay to engage with those on their phones. Etiquette is not something static, not a strict code of conduct, but something that changes to reflect the times. We can see how these attitudes are changing thanks to these latest findings. Around one-quarter (23%) of the cell phone owning respondents said that they occasionally use their phones to avoid interacting with others when in public spaces. Only 6% were actually honest and said they do this frequently.
A fascinating trend that they did see in the data was that females under 50 were more likely than any other demographic to say they do this frequently with 12% as opposed to only 5% of men in the same age bracket. In Dewey’s article on this survey she make the point that this could be because it is the demographic that receives the most unwanted attention when in public.
Unfortunately, this is where any studies and even articles on ‘phone-shielding’ stop. There really isn’t much data available about it. So, like any good collaborative ethnographer I took to the streets to get the real scoop on how we are behaving with our phones. By “the streets” I really meant my wonderful girlfriend’s house, someone who fits very nicely into that ‘under 50’s female’ demographic that used their phones as avoidance tools more than any others.
When I asked her if she ever uses her phone to escape being sociable in public, her response was; “Literally always!”.
And I gave her the kind of scenario that you would hopefully have read at the start of this article, and asked if she had ever found herself in the same situation. She spoke about situations like that happening with people from school, and that in a sense “you want to make your life inside the phone seem more important than what is happening around you. Portraying that you are busy rather than having to say hi to people that you don’t particularly care about.”
We spoke more about how mobile phones and devices like them are or are not making society less social and she made the point that while “it’s not face to face sociality, my being on my phone still connects me to who I want to be connected to. I know who I want to speak to, and if I can do that through my phone rather than making awkward conversation with someone else, then ill choose the phone.”
“It may make you appear to be anti-social in the ‘real world’.” “But it makes you feel like you are having interactions with people that satisfy your need for social interaction.”
Speaking more on losing interpersonal social skills, she said that she never felt that she had the ability to just speak to a person on the street, so in having the phone she didn’t think there would be much difference in her behaviour.
She also made the point that “people who are out-going are probably going to be out-going no matter what… regardless of having a phone.”
The point also came up about the unwanted attention that young women receive when they are in public and how the phone is used in a barrier in “uncomfortable situations… like on a train at night or things like that, where I don’t want people to come up to me so I would rather be on my phone.”
In situations like that she said that she is “purposely anti-social (being on here phone), because I know that if I’m just sitting there I have more of a chance of people coming up to me and talking to me, and yes that may make me more anti-social, but having and using the phone is a comfort thing.”
My girlfriend is most definitely part of that phone-faking number that Pew was talking about. So she really was the perfect interviewee for this topic.
As I said before, there really isn’t anything on this new use of mobile phones, especially from outside of the USA. I’m not really sure why, because I think it’s a wonderfully interesting insight into how our culture and communications as a species are shifting.
But honestly, how did people avoid these unwanted social interactions before mobile phones?
Smith, A 2011, Americans and Their Cell Phones, Pew Research Center, viewed 30 October 2015, <http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/08/15/americans-and-their-cell-phones/>
Rainie, L & Zickuhr, K 2015, Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette, Pew Research Center, viewed 30 October 2015, <http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/26/americans-views-on-mobile-etiquette/>
Dewey, C 2015, When it is and isn’t okay to be on your smartphone: The conclusive guide, The Washington Post, viewed 30 October 2015, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/08/26/when-it-is-and-isnt-okay-to-be-on-your-smartphone-the-conclusive-guide/>