No, Your Smartphone Does Not Necessarily Impact The Quality Of Your Relationship Or Your Creativity – Forbes

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“Never show your cellphone during a job interview or business meeting.” This cautionary advice has been given time and again to aspiring job candidates or company newcomers. A lack of respect, a distraction, a temptation,… the reasons proffered are multiple and diverse.

Until now, academic research appears to either back or to generate such claims. The best known is the research in the early 2010s, published in 2013, by psychologists Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, which concludes that the mere presence of mobile phones inhibits the formation of a good relationship between two people.

So, according to the Przybylski and Weinstein article, by just putting your cellphone on the desk during meetings or interviews, you could harm social interaction. Their findings spread like wildfire and mainstream media ‘specialists’ pounced on them to back arguments on the nefarious side-effects of the cell phone. The concerns over mobile devices have given birth to nomophobia, a latter-day term describing the fear of being too far away from your smart device.

In Fact, Smartphone Presence May Have No Impact On Interaction Or Creativity

But our scientific research, just published in PLoS ONE, questions these fundamentals – or, at the very least, it updates them. Starting three years ago, we conducted two comprehensive experiments involving a total of 356 participants. To begin with, we tried to replicate Przybylski and Weinstein’s finding. We subsequently explored the notion that phone presence may rub off on the creative process. For, as research has proven time and again, relationships and inspiration are closely linked.

Our studies followed a procedure which mirrored as closely as possible Przybylski and Weinstein’s works six years earlier – with some minor differences. Basically, we just switched their cellphone for a smartphone since the latter represents today’s mainstream mobile device. In both of our studies, we formed groups of participants and asked them to have a conversation about something interesting that happened to them in the previous month. The critical point was that some groups were in presence of a smartphone, that we had placed there before participants came in, and others were in presence of a notebook. Given Przybylski and Weinstein’s findings, we were expecting the former to report less connection to their conversation partners than the latter.

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Our experiments did not yield this result. Nor did we have any better luck when analyzing the impact of smartphone presence on creativity. In this case, groups of participants were asked to design a toy for children, once again with or without the presence of a smartphone. There was no difference discerned between groups, which comprised of 136 groups.

Impact Of A New Smartphone Culture

Our results are unsettling: both outcomes suggest that a smartphone’s presence may have literally no impact on the quality of relationships or creativity. Thus, they mitigate this widely held point of view. And, more broadly, we do not appear to be alone in such conclusions: a growing number of studies are casting doubt on the pervasive impact of the smartphone on our behavior. For example, recent research shows that in-class smartphone usage does not negatively affect students’ academic performance as much as once thought. Researchers may have also over-estimated the negative impact of digital technology on adolescents’ well-being.

This is not to say that our conclusions cannot be reconciled with those published in 2013. When Przybylski and Weinstein gathered their data nine years ago, we lived in a different world: the presence of mobile devices might have had a deeper psychological impact than in 2018, when we conducted our investigation. Technology has evolved in leaps and bounds and the 2012 cellphone presented far fewer options than its 2018 smartphone descendant, to which people are now strongly attached. Furthermore, a new smartphone culture has been spawned by this Z generation which did not exist for the Y generation. Nevertheless, if any of these hypotheses are true, then our findings can, at the very least, provide, an updated assessment of the social and cognitive consequences of the presence of a mobile phone, suggesting that its effect was short-lived.

We believe the implications of our research are multiple. The first is we should hold back in hasty conclusions. No, the presence of a smartphone is not necessarily as harmful as was considered in the past few years. Such injunctions echo many in the past when it comes to the introduction of new technology. Remember the days in the Fifties when men were warned to protect their women and children from the deleterious effects of television? Each time a major technological revolution arrives, it needs time to understand and assimilate its true impact, notwithstanding the media’s attachment to sensational conclusions that lack the necessary provisos.

Smartphones In The Business Context

Secondly, business leaders might consider moderating demands to isolate their employees from the presence of their smartphones. The original 2012 research was the first of a series of research articles to suggest that the cellphone’s mere presence may have an adverse influence in the work environment. It has also been accused of taxing working memory.  Unfortunately, these claims have led to radical decisions at company level like confiscating all mobile phones before meetings or hiding them from workspaces. Our research suggests a more nuanced response should be implemented, such as putting the phone in airplane mode or switching it off. It would thus defuse tensions which often arise in front of such blanket policies.

More generally, we believe that novel findings in research need to be given time to replicate results. Otherwise, some media and businesses zoom in on spectacular – and, sometimes, erroneous – research conclusions. As technology accelerates, so does public demand for clarity and simple answers. Unfortunately, research doesn’t work like that. The remarkable progress in mobile phone technology encourages us to center more and more of our thinking process on this pocket-size contraption. The consequences on our psyche and creativity will take time to ascertain. And this needs rigorous long-term research to provide sometimes complex proposals for complex problems.

Claire Linares and Anne-Laure Sellier are, respectively, Doctoral graduate student and Associate Professor in Marketing at HEC Paris.

Daniel Brown is Chief Editor at HEC Paris Communications Department.