I don’t seeeee you: How people use mobile phones to avoid social contact

Thirteen percent of American mobile phones users employ their devices for avoiding meatspace social contact, according to a new survey on how people use their phones from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.


Surprised it’s not higher, actually. I’ve done this and I bet you have, too.

“Cell phones can help prevent unwanted personal interactions – 13% of cell owners pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with the people around them,” writes Pew’s Aaron Smith.

Highlights of the report:

-In the 30 days leading up to the survey, 51% of people used their phones for quick information retrieval

-27% reported having trouble doing something because they didn’t have their phone handy

-42% used their devices to fight boredom

I emailed a few question to Smith. Here’s the exchange:

How are people using mobile phones to avoid social contact?

We saw two types of “unplugging” or “interaction avoidance” taking place in this study. The first type involved people getting away from their phone itself–three in ten cell owners said that they had taken a break from their phone recently by turning it off for a period of time.

The second type involved people using their phones to avoid interacting with people in person–one example of this might be “missing” someone on the street because you are busy looking at your phone. This was less common than unplugging in general, as 13% of cell owners said that they have done this recently.

I’m surprised that number isn’t higher. Maybe people don’t want to own up to avoiding social contact by looking busy on their iPhones?

I’d say it’s more likely that cell phones are simply the most convenient and widely-owned tool available to people who don’t wish to be bothered at the moment.

In the past we might have put up a personal “do not disturb” sign by reading a book or newspaper since that’s what we carried around, but today cell phones are filling that role since eight in every ten Americans now carries one with them as they go about their daily lives.

Avoidance behavior is an interesting contrast to your other findings showing how much people rely on their phones to stay in touch with the world electronically — for news, emergencies, etc. What’s going on?

In many ways this is a very old story–sometimes we want to be social, while other times we simply want to be left to our own devices.

Cell users clearly enjoy the benefits that these devices offer (both in terms of connecting them with others and with things that interest them) but occasionally just feel the need to unplug for a while.

(Image from pewinternet.org)

  • Kassie

    “27% reported having trouble doing something because they didn’t have their phone handy”

    Does this include making a phone call? I often find it hard to make phone calls when my phone isn’t handy.

  • Smith

    This was a favorite activity among girls at my college while walking to class. The amount of fake conversations that they would have on their cell phones was amazing. I wanted to avoid unwanted small talk too, but I just kept my head down to avoid eye contact like a normal person. I guess I am just old school in my anti-social behavior.

  • Suzanne

    One place you can’t do this is on an airplane, where I open a book or put in my iPod whether or not I am reading/listening. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk – it would be rude to be direct about that to someone trying to engage you in conversation.

  • GaryF

    I have a 15 year old son that doesn’t get to text.

    He must learn interpersonal communication skills such as talking on the phone and communicating with people face to face.