Need directions? Or a restaurant recommendation? These days, you’d probably seek help on your smartphone — a handy know-it-all device that can spit out answers to almost anything anywhere at any time. But a mere ten years ago, you may have asked someone — a neighbor, a stranger — for help.
At the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers, according to Pew Research Center’s analysis of comScore data. On average people use a small number of trusted news sources on the mobile phone. According to a recent study from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, the average across all countries is 1.52 per person, significantly fewer than on a tablet or computer. Even though 70% of smartphone users have a news app installed on their phone, only a third of respondents actually use them in a given week, reinforcing the difficulty many news brands have in cutting through on this crowded and very personal device. In the United States, the average number of news apps is 1.5.
But have you ever considered the social cost to that handy source of information?
One problem is that while supplying valid information, the internet also can rapidly disseminate unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories that often elicit rapid, large, but naive social responses such as the recent case of Jade Helm 15––where a simple military exercise turned out to be perceived as the beginning of a new civil war in the United States. Massive digital misinformation is becoming pervasive in online social media to the extent that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the main threats to our society.
However, I would suggest a more fundamental problem: what happens when we forget how to talk to each other, rely on each other, and instead talk to a machine? New research looks at the unseen social costs of this change in how we obtain information and interact with others. Generally it was found that the more people relied on their mobile phones for information, the less they trusted strangers, neighbors and people from other religions and nationalities. In contrast, obtaining information through any other method—including TV, radio, newspapers, and even the Internet more broadly—predicted higher trust in those groups.
Psychologists Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia and Jason Proulx of the University of British Columbia investigate if using smartphones is associated with declining trust in others, what they call “the social lubricant of society.” The authors theorize that “by changing where and what information people have access to, ubiquitous computing may decrease people’s interdependence with other members of society — especially those we normally encounter only outside of the sphere of close relationships.” For example, are smartphone users less inclined to ask people for advice or information — such as directions or restaurant recommendations — when they could turn to Google?
The authors used a nationally representative sample of 2,187 Americans who answered questions on how often they rely on mobile phones and other sources of information, and how much they trust other groups, including family, neighbors, foreigners and strangers. With these data points, controlling for demographic and geographic variables, they were able to “explore the relationship between mobile information and trust.” They also assessed whether this relationship depends on social bonds. For example, are family members more trustworthy than strangers?
Here are other key findings:
- The more someone uses a smartphone for information, the less likely she is to trust “neighbors, strangers, and people from other religions or nationalities.”
- Reliance on smartphones had no correlation with how much people trust those from their inner circle, such as family members.
- Demographic factors do not explain these findings.
- The authors interpret the findings: “We theorized that mobile information erodes trust in strangers by interfering with casual opportunities to talk with strangers and by obviating the need to rely on others.”
- It is possible that the correlation could be understood in the reverse: That “people who trust others less might be more likely to use their mobile phones for information.”