woman on mobileMobile devices have been causing big changes in the way people – users and non-users alike – act and behave in public and in social groups since cellphone use first became widespread. They have also been changing collective ideas of proper etiuette and what is or isn’t civil behavior.

A new study from Pew Research Center delves into what Americans think is and isn’t appropriate in terms of cellphone and smartphone use in public places and social gatherings, as well as the ways their own behavior contradicts them. Constant connectivity creates new social challenges.

Just over 9 in 10 (92 percent) of U.S. adults have cellphones of some kind, including smartphones, the researchers found. Ninety percent say they frequently carry their mobile devices with them. Three in ten (31 percent) cellphone owners said they never turn them off. Forty-five percent said they rarely do.

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Cellphone Etiquette Research
Many Americans believe mobile phone use is harmful and distracting to the social dynamics of group gatherings. Despite this, 9 in 10 (89 percent) said they themselves used their mobile phones during their most recent face-to-face group interaction.

More specifically, respondents said they used their mobile phones to send or read a text message, take photos or videos, or receive an incoming call. Fewer used them to do other things, including placing a call, using an app, searching or browsing the Web.

Nearly 8 in 10 adults (77 percent) think that in general it is OK for people to talk on their mobile phones while walking down the street. Three-quarters believe it’s OK for others to use mobile phones on public transit.

In contrast, nearly 4 in 10 (38 percent) think it’s generally OK for others to use their mobile phones in restaurants. Just 5 percent think it’s OK to use at a meeting.

Eight in 10 (82 percent) adults said that mobile phone use during face-to-face conversations negatively impacts this social interaction. One-third said it frequently or occasionally contributes to the conversation and atmosphere of the group.

Gender-wise, women are more likely than men to feel that mobile phone use damages face-to-face interactions at social gatherings: 4 in 10 women (41 percent) say it frequently hurts the group as compared 3 in 10 men (32 percent).

When it comes to age groups, more than 4 in 10 (45 percent) of adults 50-plus feel mobile phone use hurts group gatherings. Three in 10 (29 percent) of younger people feel that way.

Furthermore, one-quarter said mobile phone use takes away from group interactions because it’s distracting.

Group Dynamics
Asked why they used their mobile phones during their most recent social gathering, 16 percent said they used them because they were bored with what the group was doing. Fifteen percent said they wanted to connect with other people not present, while 10 percent used their mobile phones to avoid participating in what was being discussed.

The report authors point out that people more often used their mobile phone in some way linked to the gathering:

  • 45% used their phone to post a picture or video they had taken of the gathering.
  • 41% used their phone to share something that had occurred in the group by text, email or social networking site.
  • 38% used their phone to get information they thought would be interesting to the group.
  • 31% used their phone to connect with other people who are known to the group.

Overall, 8 in 10 (78%) cited at least one of these four reasons as compared to 3 in 10 who used their mobile phones to remove themselves from the group interaction at that specific time.

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