Smartphones—Promoting Communication Connectedness or Disconnectedness?

In early 2007, Anjali Athavaley, writing in The Wall Street Journal, observed that “[w]ireless email devices used to be largely the domain of harried executives and professionals. Now, the so-called CrackBerry effect is beginning to afflict the masses. The BlackBerry has become ingrained in daily life, much like the cellphone and computer.” Indeed, since this observation was penned, smartphones, such as the BlackBerry, have become ubiquitous in the general population. Increasingly, people from all walks of life, young and old, all socioeconomic strata, and so on have embraced the potential of smartphones for communicating with others, searching for information, doing work, playing games, and a myriad other applications. “[E]veryone from stay-at-home parents to college students depend on BlackBerrys or similar ¼ devices for basic daily tasks, such as to check sports scores, find directions, email the children’s baseball coach and keeping in up-to-the-minute touch with their friends.” “They talk on mobile phones, check email on handheld computers or integrated communicators, or get an instant or a text message on either device. Some listen to music and play games on personal game consoles, while others check sports scores, watch replays, or even make dinner reservations. Regardless of the age, gender, national identity, or socio-economic status factors, broad mobile device adoption seems to know no bounds.”

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There are numerous potential applications for smartphones such as the BlackBerry. Nick Wingfield, writing in The Wall Street Journal, notes that “mobile workers have been ditching their desktop computers for laptops that they can take them wherever they go. Now, road warriors are starting to realize that they can get even more portability¾and lots of computing punch¾from [S]mart [P]hones.” Many business “travelers are now using [S]mart [P]hones the way they once used laptops¾and laptops the way they once used desktop computers,” and some traveling businesspeople are even “ditching their laptops entirely and doing all their mobile work from [S]mart [P]hones.”

Interestingly, with the increased popularity of smartphones and all that they can do to facilitate communication, they have also undermined verbal communication and promoted incivility in the communication process. “[F]riends hardly call each other. People resist protocols that call for verbal communication¼ . People don’t like using their phones to make calls or listen to voice mails.” Texting seems to be the preferred mode, especially for younger people, when communicating with others.

Among college students, texting is a dominant form of communication¾and as most any college student knows, texting goes on at inappropriate times. For instance, texting during class¾even when it’s not allowed¾is an all-too-common occurrence. “In a survey of 1,043 college students(Links to an external site.) at the University of New Hampshire, almost half said they feel guilty about texting during class when it’s not allowed. Even so, texting is quite common: 65 percent said they send at least one text message(Links to an external site.) during a typical class.”

“People calling, texting and responding to e-mails at inappropriate times and places have become an issue in both a professional and business context.” Joseph De Avila, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, notes that there is a pervasive expectation that people have instant access to email, and rapid replies to one’s messages are also expected.[ix]

Incivility in interpersonal communication is also manifested in the level of empathy that people display toward each other. “Recent research has shown a marked decline in empathy. . . . A new University of Michigan study finds that empathy among college students has declined 40 percent in the past two decades. Researchers say one factor may be our reliance on social media. We’re more apt to be empathetic when we communicate face to face.”

Yet there is some backlash to the pull of technological connectivity. “In an increasingly connected world, some CEOs prefer to kick it old school, thereby avoiding the short attention span that comes with being plugged in. They have assistants who handle all of their communication, prefer reading printed out e-mails, and don’t dip their toes in any social media. That level of isolation is unrealistic for most executives, but learning when to connect and when to disconnect is essential in today’s business culture.”

As people in all walks of life are becoming more connected technologically, are they becoming increasingly disconnected interpersonally?


Discussion Questions

  1. How have smartphones transformed the way in which businesspeople communicate with regard to fulfilling their job responsibilities?
  2. How have smartphones transformed the way in which college students communicate?
  3. Do you think that as people become more connected technologically, they become less connected interpersonally? Why or why not?

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