The telephone is an important tool for staying in touch with friends and family, especially for people living far away from loved ones. And while modern cell phones allow for pretty much constant communication, they also have many other uses—not all of which promote social interaction. In fact, a new study suggests that for some people, cell phone use may lead to alienation rather than connectedness.
The research, conducted at Kent State University and published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, looked at the cell phone habits of 493 college students, along with their feelings about their parents and peers. They found significant differences in usage between men and women, as well as the ways that usage affected relationships.
Female students spent an average of 365 minutes a day using their phones, making about six calls and sending and receiving roughly 265 text messages. When researchers looked at the effect of these behaviors on the women’s relationships, they found that talking on the phone with parents and texting with friends were both tied to feelings of emotional closeness.
Men, on the other hand, sent only 190 texts on average and spent only 287 minutes total on their phones (They made about the same number of calls.) And when it came to their relationships, it didn’t seem to matter how often they talked or texted: Neither habit was related to feelings of closeness, with parents nor with friends.
These results suggest that women may get more social value out of their phones than men do, says lead author Andrew Lepp, PhD, and that they may be better at using them to complement existing relationships. But the study could not show a causation between cell phone use and stronger social ties; it could also be that women who have strong relationships are simply more motivated to use their phones to connect with those people.
For both genders, however, cell phone use also had a darker side: “Problematic” use, defined as a recurrent craving to use a cell phone during inappropriate times, such as driving a car or at night when you should be sleeping, was associated with lower levels of trust and communication—and higher levels of alienation—within students’ networks.
“In other words, the students in the study who tended to use their cell phones compulsively and at inappropriate times felt less socially connected to parents and peers than other students,” said Lepp in a press release.
As a possible explanation, the authors suggest that cell-phone use for purposes other than texting and calling—such as browsing the Internet and playing games—could be replacing face-to-face communication and other meaningful forms of relationship building. Social media may also fit into this category, they write, since research has shown that these types of interactions cannot completely satisfy people’s social needs they way real-life interactions can.
More research is needed to determine whether phone use is really affecting these feelings, or to know if these findings would prove true for other age groups or demographics. But for college students specifically—a group that may be living away from parents and childhood friends for the first time—the authors say that their findings are an important first step.
“College students are avid cell phone users and believe that the device contributes meaningfully to their social lives,” they write. “As this research shows, this belief is likely to be true and false.” Young adults and their parents should think carefully about their cell phone use, they suggest, and consider how it can both help and hinder their social relationships during the important transition to independence and life away from home.