This section of the report focuses on cellphone usage in group settings and social gatherings — encounters where people’s use of cellphones might change the basic dynamic of the group.
The survey probed these issues in several ways. The findings show that people use their phones in such gatherings with mixed impacts on the social dynamic of the group and varied feelings about the appropriateness of their phone usage. There are times when people use their phones to further the activities of the group and there are times when phone use is a tactic of social disengagement.
In general, Americans feel that when people use their cellphones in social gatherings it hurts the conversation more often than it helps
In the main, Americans think that when people focus on their phones instead of their companions, it hurts the group in which they are participating. This Pew Research Center survey attempted to measure feelings about this complicated issue from both directions — respondents were asked first about whether cellphone use might hurt social gatherings, and then whether cell phone use might help gatherings. It was possible for them to answer “yes” to both questions, or “no” to both.
The social balance sheet they constructed looks like this:
- Phone use hurts gatherings: 82% of all adults (not just cell owners) say that when people use their cellphones at social gatherings, it at least occasionally hurts the conversation and atmosphere of the gathering. Some 37% say it “frequently” hurts the gathering and another 45% say it “occasionally” hurts the gathering, while only 18% say it “rarely” or “never” hurts the gathering.
- Phone use helps gatherings: On the other hand, 33% of Americans say that when people use their phones at social gatherings it at least occasionally contributes to the conversation and helps the atmosphere of the gathering. Only 5% say such phone use “frequently” helps and 29% say it “occasionally” helps. Meanwhile, 66% feel that when people use their cellphones at social gatherings it “rarely” or “never” helps the tenor of the event.
The strongest objections to phone use during social get-togethers come from women, whites and older cellphone users. Older women are especially bothered when people turn to their screens during a gathering: 52% of women age 50 and older say that cellphone use at social gatherings “frequently” hurts the occasion; similarly, 35% of women in that age bracket say that cellphone use “never” contributes to a gathering. Overall, adults 65 and older are especially likely to say that cellphone use in social settings frequently harms the gathering and also to say that it never helps the gathering.
Additionally, 85% of whites say that cell use during social gatherings frequently or occasionally hurts the gathering, compared with 71% of blacks and 76% of Hispanics who say the same. And 69% of whites say such phone use rarely or never contributes to the atmosphere of the gathering, compared with 62% of blacks and 60% of Hispanics.
Inevitably, there is variance in views among the young and the old, as the nearby chart illustrates.
Despite the consensus that cellphone use harms group interactions, most cellphone owners think their phone use does not necessarily take their attention away from the group
In addition to asking about their views on cellphone use in group settings generally, the survey also asked cellphone owners about the impact of their own mobile device usage during group interactions. Some 75% said their phone use took none (32%) or only “a little” (43%) of their attention away from the group; 18% say their phone use took some of their attention away from the group; another 6% say their use took “a lot” of their attention away from their immediate social setting.
In many cases, people use their phones in the midst of social settings to connect to another person — so they are being social in a way, even if they are not being social with those nearby. Some 41% of cell owners indicate that at least some of their cellphone usage in group social gatherings is for the purpose of connecting to others: 14% of cellphone owners say that “a lot” of their phone use in group social settings is to get in touch or connect with someone else, while 27% say that “some” of their phone use is for this purpose. Meanwhile, a majority of cellphone users say that only a little (36%) or none (23%) of their cell use in social settings is to get in touch or connect with others.
In spite of their misgivings about the impact of mobile devices on group interactions, many cell owners pick up their own mobile devices when they are at social gatherings
Despite their general concerns about the impact of cellphones in social settings, the vast majority of cell owners say they themselves use their phones during their own social gatherings. However, they often say they use their phones in these settings in order to do things that connect to the group.
In this survey, cellphone owners were asked to think about the most recent time they were at a social gathering and to indicate whether they used their cellphone in various ways during that gathering. Overall, 89% of cellphone owners ages 18 and older say that they used their phone in at least one of the ways we asked about. A majority of cell owners indicated that they used their phone to read or send messages, take photos or videos, or receive an incoming call during their most recent social gathering. Fewer used their phones to disengage entirely from the group, such as checking to see if they had any alerts, placing a call, using an app, or searching or browsing the web.
In general, smartphone owners were significantly more likely to have done many of these at a recent social gathering, even when the activities are not necessarily smartphone-specific. For instance, 73% of smartphone owners read a message such as a text or email, compared with 30% of regular cellphone owners. In addition, 70% of smartphone owners took a photo or video during their most recent social gathering, compared with 27% of regular cellphone owners, and 64% of smartphone owners sent one, compared with 22% of regular cellphone owners.
Moreover, younger cellphone owners were far more likely to have used their phones in each of these ways at a recent social gathering than older cell users. Fully 98% of young adults used their phone for at least one of these reasons during a recent gathering, compared with 69% of cell owners 65 and older.
Cellphone owners ages 18 to 29 are more likely to have turned to their screen during a recent social gathering for some of the individual activities we queried, including reading messages, sending messages, using apps, looking for alerts and browsing the web.
There are also some differences between men and women. At their most recent social gathering, among cellphone owners, men were more likely than women to:
- receive a call: 56% of cellphone-owning men did this vs. 48% of cellphone-owning women
- check to see if they had received an alert: 37% of cellphone-owning men did this vs. 31% of cellphone-owning women
- place a call: 37% of cellphone-owning men did this vs. 30% of cellphone-owning women
- use an app: 34% of cellphone-owning men did this vs. 24% of cellphone-owning women
- search or browse the web: 30% of cellphone-owning men did this vs. 21% of cellphone-owning women
People often use their cells during social gatherings to add to the group’s interactions
In a follow-up question, we asked those who said they had recently used their phone at a social gathering the reasons for their cellphone use. Among the reasons we asked about, the most common responses relate to activities that add to the immediate gathering, rather than retreat from it. A relatively large number of those who used their phone during a recent social gathering did so to:
- post a picture or video of the group (45%)
- share something that had occurred in the group by text, email or social networking site (41%)
- get information that would be interesting to the group (38%)
- connect with other people who are known by the group (31%)
Overall, 78% cited at least one of these four “group-contributing” reasons.
On the other hand, a share of those cell users who used their phone in a recent social gathering said they had used their phone in order to disengage with the group in one way or another. Some 16% said they used their phone because they are no longer interested in what the group was doing; 15% used their phone to connect with people outside the group (and who are not known to the other people in attendance); and 10% said they used their phone to avoid participating in what the group was discussing. Overall, 30% cited at least one of these three “group-detracting” reasons.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, smartphone users are more likely than other cell users to have used their phones for most of these activities. However, smartphone owners are not significantly more likely than regular cell users to say they used their phone to avoid participating in what the group was discussing.
Younger adults are more likely to use their phone for “group-enhancing” reasons — but also are more likely to use their phones in ways that detract from the group at hand
Among cell phone owners who recently used their phone at a social gathering, younger users are more likely than older users to say they had used their phones for each of the reasons we asked about. These differences are especially pronounced when it comes to using one’s cellphone for getting information that would be interesting for the group and connecting with people known by the group, but also for all three of the activities that might distance people from the group.
What others did at a recent social gathering
A separate question asked all respondents (not just cellphone users) about others’ cellphone use at a recent group event. In response, 86% of adults said that they remember someone else using their phone at the most recent social gathering they attended.
Some 90% of the cell users who said they used their phone in a recent social gathering also said that someone else at that the gathering also used their cellphone. By comparison, just 68% of cellphone users who did not use their cell in a recent social gathering said someone else used a phone at that gathering. This raises some questions as to the role of group social norms in setting standards of behavior around cellphone use: Those who use their phones in groups may also be more likely to be in groups where phone use is more common and therefore have higher expectations that people’s cell use will be part of the gathering’s environment.
A similar dynamic applies to the age of cell owners. Those under age 50 (91%) are more likely than older adults to say someone else used a phone at their most recent social gathering, particularly those ages 65 and older (78%). Smartphone users also more likely than regular cell users to say someone else used a phone, as are people living in higher income households or those who have higher levels of education. There are no significant differences by gender or by race or ethnicity.