Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Mobile Phones, Modernity, and Stress


The study, which followed more than 1,300 adults over 2 years, found that those who consistently used a mobile phone or pager throughout the study period were more likely to report negative “spillover” between work and home life — and, in turn, less satisfaction with their family life.

From “Cell phones tied to family tension,” via SmartphoneThoughts, who asks a good question about the implication–that this sounds like it’s tied to cell phones but not computers. It turns out that the article sounds like it addresses the question. The article is “Blurring Boundaries? Linking Technology Use, Spillover, Individual Distress, and Family Satisfaction” in the December 2005 Journal of Marriage and Family. I say it sounds like it answers the question because the article is $38.36, plus taxes. No word on if your taxes paid for the research or the abstract:

Information technology is entrenched in everyday life; yet, scholars have not firmly established whether this use blesses or vexes individuals and their families. This study analyzes longitudinal data (N =1,367) from the Cornell Couples and Careers Study to assess whether increases in spillover explain changes in distress and family satisfaction associated with technology use. Structural equation models indicate that cell phone use over time (but not computer use) is associated with increases in negative forms of spillover (positive spillover is not significant) and is linked to increased distress and lower family satisfaction. Overall, the evidence suggests that technology use may be blurring work/family boundaries with negative consequences for working people.

I find this to be fascinating, because as more and more new things flow into the market, and they’re used in new and innovative ways, new possibilities open up. Precision online package tracking is made possible by radios that are very similar to mobile phones. There are downsides, too. That same technology can be used to track people. As the rate of change increases, our ability to integrate change into our lives and agree on new social norms doesn’t always keep up. Witness people having inappropriate conversations on their cell phones, and the stress people feel witnessing those conversations, and feeling it rude to interrupt. Twenty years after mobile phones were introduced, we’re still trying to sort out the social mores which should surround them. Those mores have changed substantially as nalle (yuppie teddy bears) have come down in price to where the formerly scornful could become addicted to them. I hope and expect that the mores of accepting a call in the middle of a conversation will continue to shift to something approximating politeness.

More broadly, cell phones are one of a great many new technologies around which mores are unsettled. New technologies have costs and benefits which aren’t ‘perfectly’ distributed to those who bear the costs. Another example is the use and abuse of data about people by government agencies:

Last night Oliver Heald, the shadow constitutional affairs secretary, said: “There is growing concern among the public about Labour’s use of invasive ‘Big Brother’ computer databases – without transparency or clear backing from the public – such as for the forthcoming council tax revaluation.

“I believe local residents will be alarmed at the further prospect of town hall bureaucrats being told to investigate people’s homes for ID cards, backed up with the threat of thousand-pound fines.” (From “No identity card? You could be fined £2,500.”

I think that the personal privacy aspects of this are the only part that Toefler didn’t talk about in “Future Shock” thirty years ago. These are hard problems. They lead to people being disaffected and adrift. (On which topic, be sure to read John Perry Barlow’s “Here and Now in the Floating World.“)

Disaffected and adrift seems to be a fine description of this post as well. It had a point when I started it. Then chaos happened, and I’m powerless to do anything but say that the cute kid is from Kaiser T, on Flickr, and hope. [Update: Oooh, and I could spell ‘modernity’ correctly.]

One comment on "Mobile Phones, Modernity, and Stress"

  • Stiennon says:

    There is always someone who will do a study that demonstrates that technology is having ad adverse effect on family/society/whatever. Toefler made a name for himself in Future Shock a book written almost before digital watches were around. Ask any 12 year old if they are confused or “floating” because there is too much technology and they will look at you like the old fart you are.
    “Future Shock” is really the numbing of that part of the brain that seeks to explore and try new things. It is a disease of the aging.
    My guidance: stay young, use technology.

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