Are smartphones killing the art of conversation?
With new research finding we spend an entire day each week online, Chris Graham asks if our phone use could be harming our communication skills
We are apparently talking less. That is the takeaway from a landmark report that found people are speaking to others less on their mobile phones for the first time ever.
British communications regulator Ofcom, which compiled the report, says the popularity of messaging services such as WhatsApp, Skype and Snapchat - all of which can be used to make calls as well as send messages - has slashed the amount of time spent on traditional mobile voice networks.
In the first fall since data collection started, total outgoing mobile call volumes in the UK dropped by 2.5 billion minutes last year to 148.6 billion minutes, the regulator said.
"When I talk to young people as part of my research very few of them ever use their phones to call," said Dr Joanne Orlando, researcher of digital lifestyles.
"They claim texting is much easier and quicker and that there is no need to talk. Actually we have seen a trend in phone plans offering more and more data - offering more phone calls is not a selling feature any more."
With young people using smartphones more than ever before, concerns have been raised about how the use of messaging might be affecting their communication skills. There have long been fears that the use of text-speak might have a negative impact on the grammar and spelling. But could it also harm the art of conversation?
Dr Orlando doesn't think so.
"Conversation is just shifting to take into account the various ways technology can be used to enhance it," Dr Orlando, of Western Sydney University, explains. "If we think about it, conversation has changed a lot over the years. We are now finding value in communicating via video and images - take the massive appeal of Snapchat and Instagram. Often these images are then used as talking points when we see each other face-to-face."
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a leading psychologist and author, disagrees, and blames some parents, who are spending "way too much time" on smartphones.
"I really don't think this is a moral panic, as some people are saying, I think this is legitimate," he says.
"When you are growing up, nothing lights up the child's brain like one-on-one three dimensional play with a loving adult. And what worries me is that with so many kids now, you see them in restaurants and they're basically just given a mobile to shut them up. There's no interaction, they're not learning delayed gratification, no manners, and learning just to be alone... and you wonder what that's going to mean for these kids when they grow up.
"Will they have the ability to sit quietly, will they have the ability to carry on a conversation with someone, particularly as they never see their parents doing it?"
Dr Nenagh Kemp, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Tasmania, believes the use of smartphones by teenagers could be more detrimental.
"During adolescence, it's increasingly common to use online apps to communicate. Sometimes this means that young people aren't getting the chance to practise more challenging conversations face-to-face: inviting someone out, declining an invitation, apologising for an offence.
"This lack of practice with face-to-face interaction could breed lifelong difficulty with some types of conversation."
The Ofcom report found more than two in five admitted to spending too much time online. Adult users spend an average two hours and 28 minutes a day online on a smartphone, the regulator said. For 18-24 years olds, this increases to three hours and 14 minutes.
"A lot of us spend way too much time online," Dr Orlando says. "The dangers are that we get mentally exhausted from it."
In a study last year, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, found teenagers who spent more time on new media were more likely to report mental health issues than those who spent time on non-screen activities.
According to data collected between 2010 and 2015 from more than 500,000 adolescents in the US, children who spent low amounts of time engaged in in-person social interaction, but high amounts of time on social media, were the most likely to be depressed.
Dr Orlando argues that "talking less with voice only - as in a phone call - won't affect their mental health".
"What will affect it is if they are not communicating in a meaningful way. If a young person is still connecting with friends, talking to them when they see them, and having two-way conversations that they find meaningful, then that will contribute to their social needs for connecting with others."
Dr Carr-Gregg, however, says the excessive use of smartphones is why "we are seeing a massive decline in child and adolescent mental health." He says universities "have noticed the difference in mental health" of students. "The problem doesn't get better when they leave school - it gets worse," he adds.
With three quarters of people in the Ofcom survey saying their smartphones helped keep them close to friends and family, Dr Carr-Gregg agrees "some communication is better than none". "We know that isolation and loneliness are two of the biggest problems for mental and physical health. I'm happier for them to communicate than not communicate, and you could argue that the technology allows communication and gets round a lot of geographic barriers in a way that we haven't been able to do before."
Indeed, Dr Rachel Grieve, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Tasmania, says in some cases communicating online helps people overcome feelings of social isolation.
"If people are using their smartphones to chat via apps such as Facebook, then that is a means to enhance their social capital and social connectedness. So, that means smartphones could serve as a buffer to loneliness, rather than causing feelings of isolation," she says.
One debate that is taking place around the world is whether to ban mobile phones at school. Blenneville National School near Tralee, Co Kerry, has noted an improvement since banning smartphones for primary pupils, while France is to impose a total ban on pupils using such devices in primary and secondary schools starting in this September, though how it will be enforced remains to be seen.
Dr Carr-Gregg, who is leading an inquiry for the New South Wales government in Australia on the use of mobile phones in schools, says: "Where schools have banned phones, particularly in recess and lunchtime, there is an upsurge in socialisation, people actually start communicating with each other."
Some 54pc of respondents to the Ofcom survey also said the devices proved a distraction during face-to-face conversations with those same people.
"We've got a whole new challenge facing us and that is teaching kids to turn their phones off when they're having a conversation with someone so they're not distracted," Dr Carr-Gregg says.
Dr Orlando acknowledges the distraction by saying "conversation is shifting gears". "We want to be with others and we want to be online at the same time; we don't want limits on either of them," she says. And while she agrees physical conversations are "really important" to develop relationships, communication online has its benefits too.
"Part of building relationships comes from sharing things about ourselves, like our day-to-day lives, etc. We often find it easier to do that online - we become braver online, and we also don't have time limitations or the need to be physically connected with them.
"The internet acts as a space where we reflect on and shape our social skills. That's a good thing."