I did a one hour observational research session at a busy food court on a weekday in a mall from 5pm to 6pm. During this hour, I monitored and noted down anyone who was involved with smartphone usage. This included people sitting down at the food court, people walking through the food court, and people making their way up or down the escalators. I took note of how they were using their phones, whether they were alone or with other people, their gender, and approximate guesses of their age range.
Through my observations, I hoped to gain insight to what people were using their phones for, whether they were using it for communication purposes, and if so how they were communicating (whether it was via instant messaging or phone calls). As well as to analyze their behaviours, amount of time spent and the demographic of users. I hoped to see if there were patterns I could make out through my observations to analyze how smartphone usage influences the nature, quality and amount of social communication they have as well as how these devices affect their offline behaviours and interactions.
One question I hoped to get an answer for was whether time spent communicating through smartphones and communication technology is coming at the expense of time spent interacting face-to-face. Does the mobility and constant social connectivity of a smartphone act as a disruption and a distraction when it comes to how we interact with people we are presently with?
In my observations, I witnessed at least 27 cases where people were holding their phone in their hands or they had their phone readily out but weren’t interacting with it or using it. There were a few cases where they would take short glances at it, or the screen was still lit, indicating recent usage. Out of those 27 cases, 4 were people who had their phone out on the table while sitting down at the food court. And out of those 4, 3 were sitting with another person. I noticed in two of those cases, the phone would briefly disrupt the conversation between the two people as one of them checked an incoming message.
This pattern of noted observations of smartphone owners having their phone readily out, may indicate the idea that there is a need to regularly check back on these devices. It points out how many users are involved in the constant connectivity these devices offer. The question it raises is whether this becomes too much of a distraction or addition and whether it disrupts time spent communicating with people presently around us. It is difficult to say without gathering more observational research with a greater amount of gathered data.
When people were using their phones, I found I recorded almost double the amount of cases where the phone was used for making phone calls (33 cases) rather than text messaging (18 cases). One thing I noticed in many cases of smartphone usage for phone calls, 29 out of the 33 times, the person was alone. Nearly all of these people were witnessed making calls while walking through the food court or making their way up or down the escalator, only a few of these cases involved the individual sitting down at a table at the food court. The other 4 cases of the 33 were people making a phone call while with one other person. In my observations, all of these cases had a reoccurring pattern where there was no interaction, eye contact, gestures or conversing with the person they were with while speaking on the phone.
Another thing I noted was a huge number of these smartphone users ranged in their early 20s to early 40s. In only one case did I note down an elderly man (probably early 70s) making a call on his phone.
When it came to text messaging or instant messaging, I witnessed 18 cases within my hour of observations where people were texting on their smartphones. In all but one of these cases, the person was alone. A reoccurring behaviour was that people who were texting would rarely, if ever, take their attention away from the phone screen. I studied many who would only take short, quick glances up to see they have made their way down from the escalator or to make sure they aren’t walking into anyone. The age range of these individuals ranged from late teens and early 20s to middle aged individuals around late 40s.
People who were scrolling or browsing their phones were noted to be less focused on the screen as those who were instant messaging. In these cases where users were browsing on their phones would find themselves looking and glancing away from their phone for longer periods and more often. Most of these 12 recorded cases were people who were sitting or walking around alone. In one of the cases, the person was using their phone for gaming and browsing for an extended time, but put the phone away as soon as their friend joined at the table.
What I’ve concluded from these observations is that people tend to use the phone while alone and not in the presence of others. While I did notice that phone usage in groups of two people or more, the person connecting on the phone created a barrier between them and the person they were with through the complete lack of interaction, eye contact, or conversing. However these cases only made up a small percentage of the total amount of cases recorded. Nearly all cases of text message usage and most cases of phone call making, people were alone and not with anyone. In this sense, we could say that there is a sense of prioritizing the conversation and interactions we have with people immediately around us than the those who we are communicating with on our phones. I’ve also concluded that there is a much greater number of people who use their smartphones for phone calls compared to text messaging or phone browsing. This however, may be related to the time of the day I decided to do my observations (5pm-6pm, a time where people are more available to conversing on the phone). Other factors like free-evening minute plans or the fact that text messaging takes a shorter amount of time than a phone call and therefore is rarer to observe, may affect the collection of my data.