Cell phones are not an impediment to public social interaction

Recent research from a sociologist analyzing video footage of public spaces shows cell phones don’t limit public interaction:

Between 2008 and 2010, his team accrued enough footage to begin a comparison with the P.P.S. films — together the two collections totaled more than 38 hours. “Films were sampled at 15-second intervals for a total of 9,173 observation periods,” he writes in his article, which reads like a study in scholarly masochism. Hampton and a team of 11 graduate and undergraduate students from Penn spent a total of 2,000 hours looking at the films, coding the individuals they observed for four characteristics: sex, group size, “loitering” and phone use…

First off, mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent. More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. Of course, there’s still the psychic toll, which we all know, of feeling tethered to your phone — even while relaxing at the park. But that’s a personal cost. From what Hampton could tell, the phones weren’t nearly as hard on our relationships as many suspect…

According to Hampton, our tendency to interact with others in public has, if anything, improved since the ‘70s. The P.P.S. films showed that in 1979 about 32 percent of those visited the steps of the Met were alone; in 2010, only 24 percent were alone in the same spot. When I mentioned these results to Sherry Turkle, she said that Hampton could be right about these specific public spaces, but that technology may still have corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table, or in the den. Rich Ling, a mobile-phone researcher in Denmark, also noted the limitations of Hampton’s sample. “He was capturing the middle of the business day,” said Ling, who generally admires Hampton’s work. For businesspeople, “there might be a quick check, do I have an email or a text message, then get on with life.” Fourteen-year-olds might be an entirely different story…

In fact, this was Hampton’s most surprising finding: Today there are just a lot more women in public, proportional to men. It’s not just on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. On the steps of the Met, the proportion of women increased by 33 percent, and in Bryant Park by 18 percent. The only place women decreased proportionally was in Boston’s Downtown Crossing — a major shopping area. “The decline of women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles,” Hampton writes. Men seem to be “taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine.”

Perhaps there is such a reaction to people using phones in public because (1) they are a new technology and people still aren’t used to them – smartphones are only less than a decade old and/or (2) phones are less noticeable or personally intrusive in wide open settings like the steps of the Met but very noticeable in more confined settings where conversations can be heard.

I think there is also a lot sociologists could build on here with Hampton’s methodology. Video may seem archaic when you can utilize big data but it can still provide unique insights into social behavior. While the coding of the video was rather simple (they looked at four categories: “sex, group size, “loitering” and phone use”), it took a lot of time to go through the video and compare it to Whyte’s earlier film. This comparative element is also quite useful: we can then compare patterns over time. All together, think how much video footage is collected in public these days and how it might lend itself to research…

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