On this episode, Anna Maughan tells us about her work on conspiracy theories and how emotions may play a role in who is susceptible to them. We also discuss the possible negative effects of medical conspiracy theories.
You can follow Anna’s work on Twitter @annafmaughan.
You can read one of Anna’s papers on Covid-19 Misinformation here.
If you’d like to stay up to date with the podcast, you can follow me on Twitter @browngenavee.
This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.
Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.
This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.
We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).
Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Jenny Paterson tells us about how Harry and Meghan are changing attitudes about interracial couples! From the royal wedding to baby Archie and Megxit, Jenny takes us through the ways in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have reduced prejudice. We also discuss the importance of representation in media. All this in honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. #fightracism
For more info about Jenny’s work, check out her staff profile or follow her on Twitter @DrJennyPaterson.
To learn more about the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, you can visit the UN’s dedicated webpage. And support their initiatives with the hashtag #fightracism.
In this episode, Dr. Lee Shepherd tells us about his work on emotions and sexual objectification. He discusses how it feels to be objectified and why it’s so important to study this issue to prevent objectification from occuring and to help support victims. We also discuss a funded PhD opportunity to study the causes and consequences of online misogyny.
To find out more about his work, Lee’s staff profile is here.
For more information on the PhD project, you can watch this video or check out this advertisement.
You can also find all of the PhD projects offered by Northumbria Psychology department on this blog. Applications are due February 18, 2022 for a start date of October 2022.
In a 2021 BBC News Panorama report, Marianna Spring details the online abuse, including threats of violence, she receives daily on social media simply because she’s doing her job investigating online disinformation. She’s not the only one receiving abuse online. In fact, research shows that women are more than twice as likely as men to receive online abuse and it often targets their intersectional identities (gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation) (Sunden & Paasonen, 2018). Beyond being psychologically upsetting, online misogyny can silence women’s voices and create major barriers to women’s equal participation in public and political spheres by forcing women to leave the online sphere because of the threat posed to their emotional or physical safety. For example, in a recent poll 1/3 of women MPs said that they had considered leaving political office due to online abuse.
What is online misogyny?
Online misogyny is online media (e.g., videos, blogs, posts) that target and harm women due to the posters’ hatred of women. It can take many forms and range from insulting or belittling comments to doxing to threats of rape and death. One example, doxing, occurs when an internet user’s offline personal information is shared online. For example, some prominent activists have had their home addresses or telephone numbers shared. Experiencing online misogyny can result in feelings of emotional distress and some women even leave online platforms like Twitter to avoid receiving online abuse. Thus, online misogyny can lead to women’s voices being silenced. In some rare cases it has also led to real world violence. For example, several men who later engaged in mass shootings posted online manifestos which evoked misogynistic ideas that spurred them to real-world violence against women (Hoffman, Ware, & Shapiro, 2020).
What is the goal of the proposed PhD project?
Recent calls have been made for social psychologists to address the issue of online misogyny (Tileaga, 2019). In this PhD, we’ll be examining online misogyny through a social psychology lens. Research in social psychology shows that social media provides a unique environment in which misogyny can occur. First, the internet conveys some sense of anonymity, and this has been associated with a willingness to engage in online misogyny (Fox, Cruz, & Lee, 2015). Second, social media platforms allow users to garner large audiences which can result in feeling powerful (Brown & Merritt, 2020). Power has been associated with a wide range of anti-social behaviours because being powerful prevents taking the perspective of others. This is especially true for people who have a dominant personality (Kim & Guinote, 2021).
In this PhD project we’ll be examining the consequences for women who receive misogynistic comments online as research in this area is lacking. We’ll also examine the profiles of the men who engage in online misogyny, specifically examining their power and dominance. By determining who the most likely perpetrators are, we can try to intervene and reduce online misogyny.
What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?
Successful candidates should have experience in psychology research including strong research methods and statistics knowledge. Independent and critical thinking and writing skills, passion for research, and self-motivation will also be necessary.
About the supervisors
Dr. Genavee Brown is a Lecturer and social psychology researcher at Northumbria University. She studies how technology intervenes in our relationships. Her previous work has focused on cultural differences in social media use, social capital online, and how mobile phones influence face-to-face relationships. Recent projects centre on the concept of online power and how this can help us understand antisocial behaviours online. She teaches Psychology of Intimacy and Quantitative Research Methods. She is also the host of The Big 5 podcast where she speaks to staff and students at Northumbria about their experience of studying psychology at Northumbria University.
Dr Jenny Paterson is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and has published widely on the impacts of hate crimes in which perpetrators target individuals because of a hatred towards the person’s characteristic, including gender. Within this research, she has worked closely with victims of prejudice to reveal the substantial and wide-ranging impacts that such prejudice can cause both in the online and offline realms. In addition to examining the impacts of hate, Jenny has a keen interest in developing and utilising prejudice reduction strategies to identify and nullify perpetrators of prejudice.
Dr. Lee Shepherd is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University. He undertakes research on the role of emotions on behaviour. These behaviours range from different health behaviours (e.g., health screenings) to people’s responses to discrimination.
More information and how to apply
If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Genavee Brown (email@example.com). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post
The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022
Full details of the application process can be found here
This week on The Big 5 Northumbria Psychology Department alumni, Jen Merritt, gives us some tips and tricks for succeeding at a Level 6 dissertation project and also talks about how to get a job with the NHS.
You can get in touch with Jen on her LinkedIn account.
You can get in touch with me, the host, on Twitter @BrownGenavee or firstname.lastname@example.org.
After the England men’s football team reached their first major final in 55 years, the national headlines should have been celebrating their exceptional achievement. Instead, the focus quickly turned to the vile racist abuse targeted at three Black players: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho. These young men were subjected to widespread racist hatred and threats on social media platforms. The magnitude and ferocity of such incidents of hate is, regrettably, just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of hate crimes are reported across England and Wales every week, with the total number of cases officially recorded by the police doubling over the past ten years to over 100,000 incidents per year
Hate: a special category of crime
In England and Wales, hate crimes, such as those directed at the football players, are defined as any crime (e.g., threats of violence, harassment, vandalism, assault) that is perceived to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards five legally protected characteristics: an individual’s (i) race, (ii) religion, (iii) sexual orientation, (iv) transgender identity, or (v) disability. Importantly, when a crime is shown to demonstrate or be motivated by these prejudices, the courts ‘must’ apply a ‘sentence uplift’, meaning perpetrators receive an increased punishment for their crime. Thus, the distinction of hate crime has real, tangible effects for perpetrators. But why are hate crimes considered to be a ‘special’ category of offending?
The impacts of hate
Critics of hate crime legislation have argued that such laws are prosecuting thoughts rather than actions, and that crimes, regardless of their underlying motivations, should be prosecuted in the same way. However, not only does this argument misinterpret the true nature and dynamics of hate crime, but it also fails to recognise that criminal responsibility must reflect both an offender’s level of culpability for committing an offence and the level of harm it is likely to cause. There is now considerable research that shows hate crimes are unique because the motivations underpinning such offences have additional traumatic effects both on individual victims and entire communities of people
On the individual level, research shows that hate crime victims report feeling more anxious, fearful, and vulnerable than victims of comparable non-hate crimes. Hate crime victims are also more likely to suffer more violent attacks, resulting in substantial physical injuries and in turn extensive psychological trauma. Furthermore, as hate crimes specifically target individual’s core identities and beliefs, victims are more likely to feel ostracised and marginalised, forcing them to question their place and worth in society.
The impacts do not stop there. Hate crimes act as messages of intolerance to entire communities. By targeting one member, these crimes reverberate throughout communities who share the victim’s identity characteristic causing ‘waves of harm’, in which all members are shown (or reminded) that they are vulnerable to targeted violence because of who they are.
In our research which involved 20 separate studies with over 7000 individuals in England and Wales, we have consistently found that hate crimes have a significant impact on targeted community members’ perceptions of threat (against their physical safety and rights as equal citizens), which in turn has significant negative effects on their emotional wellbeing, and their behaviours. For example, when LGBT+ participants personally knew of, or read about, other LGBT+ individuals’ experiences of hate crimes, they reported feeling vulnerable, anxious, angry, and even ashamed. While many community members sought solace with fellow LGBT+ people and were more determined to fight injustice, many also chose to avert potential prejudice-based abuse by avoiding certain locations and people, restricting public displays of affections to their partners and were less likely to reveal their sexual orientation to others.
These ‘social harms’ have significant implications for society in general, making it less open, less equal, and less diverse. In other words, hate crimes don’t just hurt those groups who are targeted, they hurt everyone who wants to live in a diverse and open society. In this sense, hate crime laws reflect the greater seriousness of such offences, not only acknowledging the enhanced harms they cause to those targeted, but they also recognise that they are a direct attack against liberal democracy’s commitment to fundamental principles including freedom and equality. Here we are reminded of the indelible words of Martin Luther King Jr who stated, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
Informing policy and practice
A central aim of our interdisciplinary research is to help combat and address the impacts of hate crimes. In doing so, we have worked with thousands of victims, multiple criminal justice agencies, and numerous charities, including Stonewall, Galop, Tell MAMA, and the Muslim Council of Britain, to ensure the research can be used to raise awareness of hate crimes and provide support to those who are affected.
Yet it is clear that much still needs to be done to prevent hate crimes and address the harms they cause. To this end, hate crime law reform consultations have been taking place across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, Judge Desmond Marrinan recently published an extensive review in hate crime legislation, while the Law Commission for England and Wales have published a 516 page consultation paper on hate crime laws and will publish their final report later this year. Both reviews are examining the use of restorative justice as an alternative intervention to address the rise in hate crime.
In its simplest terms, restorative justice helps victims and perpetrators to communicate with one another about the causes and harms of hate incidents in an effort to repair these harms and to prevent further offences. Central to the process is that those who are harmed are given a role in resolving their case, which can involve them explaining directly to the perpetrator how they have been affected and what needs to be done to assist their recover. Those who have harmed are asked to take responsibility by undertaking some form of reparation (such as financial compensation, written apologies, community or charitable work).
Although there has been initial policy resistance to its use for hate crime, our contributions to both reviews showed that restorative justice can be highly effective at reducing the emotional traumas caused by hate crime, while simultaneously preventing incidents from recurring. Perhaps almost as important is our newest research which showed that the use of restorative justice for hate crimes is supported by targeted communities and, thus, may not be seen as the “soft touch” commonly assumed by policy makers. The Northern Ireland review has in turn recommended the development of a new statutory scheme for adult restorative justice for hate crime. We hope that both Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK lead the way in instituting restorative justice practices as a means of addressing hate crime.
Another important proposal by both the Northern Ireland review and the Law Commission consultation is to broaden the scope of the current laws to include other protected characteristics, including gender and sex – a topic that has been receiving increasing support and media attention following the recent murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, pre-empting the work of the Commission and its final report the Prime Minister has stated that misogyny should not be made a hate crime. This is despite a wealth of research showing its existence as a social problem and its impact on women. It is clear that further research and, importantly, engagement with policymakers is needed to emphasise how hate-motivated attacks target individuals, threaten vast groups of people and, ultimately, undermine society. It is only by engaging with policymakers and practitioners that our research can truly help all those affected by these crimes.
Hate Crime Awareness Week
This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and impact of hate crimes, and to provide support for all those who are affected. Please click on the following links if you would like to know more about hate crime, how to report it, and how to get support if you or someone you know has been a victim.
Search for “climate change” on YouTube and before long you’ll likely find a video that denies it exists. In fact, when it comes to shaping the online conversation around climate change, a new study suggests that deniers and conspiracy theorists might hold an edge over those believing in science. Researchers found evidence that most YouTube videos relating to climate change oppose the scientific consensus that it’s primarily caused by human activities.
The study highlights the key role of social media use in the spread of scientific misinformation. And it suggests scientists and those who support them need to be more active in developing creative and compelling ways to communicate their findings. But more importantly, we need to be worried about the effects that maliciously manipulated scientific information can have on our behaviour, individually and as a society.
The recent study by Joachim Allgaier of RWTH Aachen University in Germany analysed the content of a randomised sample of 200 YouTube videos related to climate change. He found that a majority (107) of the videos either denied that climate change was caused by humans or claimed that climate change was a conspiracy.
The videos peddling the conspiracy theories received the highest number of views. And those spreading these conspiracy theories used terms like “geoengineering” to make it seem like their claims had a scientific basis when, in fact, they did not.
Climate change is far from the only area where we see a trend for online misinformation about science triumphing over scientifically valid facts. Take an issue like infectious diseases, and perhaps the most well-known example of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Despite large amounts of online information about the vaccine’s safety, false claims that it has harmful effects have spread widely and resulted in plummeting levels of vaccination in many countries around the world.
But it’s not just well-known conspiracy theories that are causing a problem. In May 2018, one troublemaker came into his own at the height of the Nipah virus outbreak that eventually claimed 17 lives in the southern Indian state of Kerala. He duplicated the letterhead of the District Medical Officer and spread a message claiming that Nipah was spreading through chicken meat.
In reality, the scientifically established view is that the fruit bat is the host for the virus. As the unfounded rumour went viral on WhatsApp in Kerala and neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu, consumers became wary of consuming chicken, which sent the incomes of local chicken traders into a tailspin.
The effects of misinformation surrounding the MMR vaccine and Nipah virus on human behaviour should not be surprising given we know that our memory is malleable. Our recollection of original facts can be replaced with new, false ones. We also know conspiracy theories have a powerful appeal as they can help people make sense of events or issues they feel they have no control over.
This problem is complicated further by the personalisation algorithms underlying social media. These tend to feed us content consistent with our beliefs and clicking patterns, helping to strengthen the acceptance of misinformation. Someone who is sceptical about climate change might be given an increasing stream of content denying it is caused by humans, making them less likely to take personal action or vote to tackle the issue.
Further rapid advances in digital technologies will also ensure that misinformation arrives in unexpected formats and with varying levels of sophistication. Duplicating an official’s letterhead or strategically using key words to manipulate online search engines is the tip of the iceberg. The emergence of artificial intelligence-related developments such as DeepFakes – highly realistic doctored videos – is likely to make it a lot harder to spot misinformation.
So how do we tackle this problem? The challenge is made greater by the fact that simply providing corrective scientific information can reinforce people’s awareness of the falsehoods. We also have to overcome resistance from people’s ideological beliefs and biases.
Social media companies are trying to developing institutional mechanisms to contain the spread of misinformation. Responding to the new research, a YouTube spokesperson said: “Since this study was conducted in 2018, we’ve made hundreds of changes to our platform and the results of this study do not accurately reflect the way that YouTube works today … These changes have already reduced views from recommendations of this type of content by 50% in the US.”
Other companies have recruited fact checkers in large numbers, awarded research grants to study misinformation to academics (including myself), and search terms for topics where misinformation could have harmful health effects have been blocked.
But the continuing prominence of scientific misinformation on social media suggests these measures are not enough. As a result, governments around the world are taking action, ranging from passing legislation to internet shutdowns, much to the ire of freedom-of-speech activists.
Scientists need to get involved
Another possible solution may be to hone people’s ability to think critically so they can tell the difference between actual scientific information and conspiracy theories. For example, a district in Kerala has launched a data literacy initiative across nearly 150 public schools trying to empower children with the skills to differentiate between authentic and fake information. It’s early days but there is already anecdotal evidence that this can make a difference.
Scientists also need to get more involved in the fight to make sure their work isn’t dismissed or misused, as in the case of terms like “geoengineering” being hijacked by YouTube climate deniers. Conspiracy theories ride on the appeal of certainties – however fake – whereas uncertainty is inherent to the scientific process. But in the case of the scientific consensus on climate change, which sees up to 99% of climate scientists agreeing that humans are responsible, we have something as close to certainty as science comes.
Scientists need to leverage this agreement to its maximum and communicate to the public using innovative and persuasive strategies. This includes creating social media content of their own to not only shift beliefs but also influence behaviours. Otherwise, their voices, however highly trusted, will continue to be drowned out by the frequency and ferocity of content produced by those with no concrete evidence.
Over the course of history, conspiracy theories have been linked to conflict, prejudice, genocide and the rejection of important scientific advances. Recently, belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories (such as that the virus is a hoax) have been linked to vaccine rejection and reluctance to take action to stop the spread of the virus.
However, despite their significance, we know almost nothing about how conspiracy theories affect children, or how beliefs in conspiracy theories change across the lifespan. This is because existing research on the psychology of conspiracy theories has only been conducted with adults. Scientists have not been able to study conspiracy beliefs in children because age-appropriate research methods have not been available.
Using this questionnaire, we found that adolescents in the UK seem most likely to start believing in conspiracy theories around the age of 14. In one of our studies, we found that as adolescents reach around this age, their conspiracy beliefs were higher than in younger age groups. In another study, we found that 18-year-olds displayed higher belief in conspiracy theories compared to a mixed‐age sample of older adults. It therefore seems that adolescence could be a peak time for conspiracy theorising.
We asked participants to decide how much they agreed with nine different statements, each on a scale of 1 to 7. These included assertions such as “secret societies influence many political decisions”, “governments have deliberately spread diseases in certain groups of people”, and “secret societies control politicians and other leaders”. We then calculated average scores across the nine items. A higher average score indicated a higher belief in conspiracy theories.
Between the ages of 11-14 and 14-16, belief in conspiracy theories increased from an average score of 3.72 to 4.67. Young people aged 16-17 also displayed a higher average (4.39) than the younger children. Furthermore, participants aged 18 reported higher conspiracy beliefs (4.06) than a mixed-age sample of older adults (3.81). Around the age of 14, conspiracy beliefs therefore appear to peak, and remain heightened into early adulthood, but then they appear to plateau.
Why conspiracy beliefs are taking hold
Many adolescents have been home schooled and isolated from their peer groups for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore not surprising that their social media use has significantly increased during this time. This could be the ideal situation for conspiracy theories to flourish in younger groups.
Psychological stress could also contribute to conspiracy beliefs in younger people. Our research also uncovered initial evidence that paranoia and mistrust are associated with young people’s conspiracy beliefs.
Other research suggests that adolescents aged 13-15 are less likely to rely on emotion regulation strategies than at other points in their life. This means that adolescents may have trouble controlling, understanding and expressing their emotions at this age, which may lead to increased anxiety and, in turn, increased belief in conspiracy theories. The additional stress and mental health worries caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead adolescents to turn to conspiracy theories even more to try to cope with feelings of anxiety and isolation.
We know that helping adults feel more empowered can reduce their tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. That is, feeling more in control of one’s social environment can reduce reliance on conspiracy theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is lowered when people are encouraged to think analytically. An important next step would be to examine whether such techniques help reduce conspiracy beliefs in younger people.
Our project has spotlighted young people’s conspiracy beliefs for the first time. Conspiracy beliefs seem to flourish in teenage years and the COVID-19 pandemic may have made things worse. We therefore need to understand more about why conspiracy theories appeal to young people and what to do about it.
Smartphones have changed the world. A quick glance around any street or communal space shows how dominant our favourite digital devices have become.
We are familiar with the sight of groups of teenagers not talking, but eagerly composing messages and posts on their screens. Or seeing couples dining silently in restaurants, ignoring the romantic flickering candle in favour of the comforting blue light of their phones.
Attempts have been made to come up with rules of phone etiquette during face-to-face interactions. But why do these devices that are meant to connect us when we’re far apart seem to cause so much division when we’re close together?
Some research has begun to examine this question. In one 2016 study conducted in US coffee shops, researchers found that using a mobile device while spending time with someone reduced the ability of one conversation partner to properly listen and engage with the other. This effect was particularly strong when the people interacting didn’t know each other well.
In another more recent study, researchers told restaurant goers to either leave their phones out on the table or to put them in a box, out of reach and sight. At the end of the meal, participants were asked how enjoyable the meal was and how distracted they had felt.
People who had their phones on the table felt more distracted, which in turn led to lower enjoyment of their time spent eating with friends or family.
My own research has also delved into the topic of phones distracting from high quality face-to-face interactions. In my study, I invited pairs of friends to come to the lab to take part in an experiment and then asked them to wait for five minutes sitting side by side in a waiting area while I printed out questionnaires.
This was actually a deception. I was only really interested in what they would do during the five minutes of “waiting time”, so I secretly filmed them to see what they did. I then asked them to complete a questionnaire on how well they thought that period of interaction had gone.
Finally, I disclosed to the participants that they had been recorded and asked for permission to keep the tapes to analyse in our study. Everyone allowed us to keep their videos (even the pair who had criticised my outfit when I left them alone). Then with the help of my research assistants, we watched all the videos to see how much each pair of friends had used their phones.
We found that 48 out of the 63 friendship pairs used their mobile phones, and on average they used their phones for one minute and 15 seconds out of the five-minute period. We calculated these averages based on both friends’ behaviours because interactions are dependent on both people who are present. So even if only one person used their phone, we would still expect their phone use to influence the quality of the interaction.
The longer they spent using their phones, the lower the quality of their interaction. We also found that regardless of how close the friends were, they all had worse interactions when they used their phones.
Watching the videos of friends using their phones taught me a lot about why they can be such a problem in face-to-face interactions. On occasion, the phones were used to share information, like showing a picture or email that they wanted to discuss. These types of usage didn’t seem to hurt their interactions, but they also didn’t happen very often.
Only 21% of people used their phones in this way and on average the sharing only lasted five seconds. What happened more often was what I refer to as “distraction multitasking”, when friends were listening with one ear but still looking at and thinking about what was on their phones.
This type of use made up the majority of what we observed on the tapes. One particularly sad clip I will always remember was between two female friends. Both friends were getting along well after I left them alone, and then one of them got out her phone.
In the meantime, her friend had thought of something she would like to say and looked up eagerly about to share perhaps some gossip or good news. But as soon as she saw that her friend was completely absorbed in her phone, she looked away, disappointed and hurt. They didn’t speak again during the waiting period.
This seems to me to be the biggest problem that phones create in face-to-face interactions. They make us less available to others by distracting us from important social cues, like that light in a friend’s eyes when she has something important to tell us.
While technologically mediated conversations can be useful to maintain our relationships, most of us still prefer face-to-face interactions to bond with our friends. Face-to-face conversations can feel safer for sharing intimate information – like things we’re worried about or proud of – because they can’t be saved and shared with others.
Being physically present also allows for physical contact, like holding someone’s hand when they’re scared or giving them a hug when they’re sad. When someone is focused on their phone, they may miss out on opportunities to give this kind of support.
The best phone etiquette to remember is that phones are meant to help us connect with our friends and family when they’re far away. When they’re right in front of us, we should take full advantage of the opportunity to connect in real life – and leave our phones alone.