When Naomi Baron conducted an international research project about people’s attitudes towards mobile phones from 2007 –2008, she noticed some interesting commonalities. Regardless of which continent they were on, most respondents said “reachability” —being able to be contacted, and to contact others, instantly at all hours of the day and night—was both what they liked most and least about having a cell phone.
“One the one hand, we feel as if we have to be there and available, and on the other hand, we don’t like it particularly,” the language and foreign studies professor says.
With the help of a Fulbright, an AU Presidential Research Fellowship, and many colleagues across the globe, Baron administered surveys to mobile phone users age 18-24 in Japan, Italy, Korea, Sweden, and the United States. These surveys asked them open-ended questions about how they use cell phones and how this technology affects them.
A surprising number of survey respondents used words like “stress,” “dependent,” “chained,” and “depressed” to describe what they liked least about their phones, instead of talking about dead zones or dropped calls.
“Subjects talked about what mobile phones do to them as people,” says Baron. “And the answer is, they don’t always like it. One major discovery of this study is what I like to call the phenomena of the ‘dark side’ of mobile phones. Anecdotally, people may say, ‘I hate my phone,’ or ‘I’m addicted to Facebook,’ but when you look statistically, you find something much more forceful going on.”
In Italy, for example, turning off one’s phone or not responding to a call or text is socially unacceptable, according to Baron. In fact, with some phone plans, if you receive a call while your phone is turned off, the phone will return the original call once it’s turned back on. One Italian man that Baron surveyed said he puts his phone in a lead box when he comes home so that the signal won’t go through and friends won’t think he is ignoring their messages (which, of course, he actually is).
Baron also had to look at cultural differences between the countries in order to interpret some survey answers. For example, unlike the other four countries, most survey participants in Japan didn’t seems to mind being made constantly available via cell phones. On the other hand, talking on trains and subways in Japan is considered highly impolite, and it is unacceptable even to send text messages in areas reserved for elderly or handicapped people.
Baron recently published some of these cultural findings in a special issue edition of the journal New Media & and Society. She is currently working with an undergraduate research apprentice, Elise Campbell (Spanish/Latin American Studies, ’12), to analyze data from this study and other research involving online and mobile communications.