Technology and close ties: How the use of smartphones affects our relationships


The study conducted by the University of Vienna and the KU Leuven investigated smartphone usage effects on quantity and quality of close relationships.

The rise of digitalization and the development of new technologies are continuously creating further possibilities for digital networking. Although the smartphone has been accompanying us for almost two decades as one of the main means of communication, there is yet no consensus in research as to whether smartphones strengthen or possibly undermine relationships with close ties. The study by Anja Stevic and Jörg Matthes of the University of Vienna in collaboration with Desirée Schmuck and Kathrin Karsay of KU Leuven examined this particular research question.

In a two-wave panel study with 461 participants, the research team investigated the consequences of smartphone use on the quantity (frequency) and quality of relationships with family and friends. The usage was distinguished between communicative and noncommunicative smartphone use. Communicative meaning using the smartphone for active communicative exchanges, such as making phone calls, texting, receiving and sending emails, or sharing photos, and noncommunicative use indicating any other type of usage, such as searching for information, reading the news, watching videos, or scrolling through the social media feed. The authors argue that this distinction is highly necessary since "the consequences of smartphone use on face-to-face communication depend on how the smartphone is being used".

The results show that communicative smartphone use has a positive effect on quantity, thus on the frequency of exchange with close ties. Overall, online communication with friends reveals to be higher because, according to the study participants, they spend more time with their families on average and therefore maintain contact with friends primarily through their smartphones. Against this, the communicative smartphone use does not have an influence on the quality of relationships, indicating that the quality of real-life relationships is not improved through smartphone communication.

The noncommunicative use of the smartphone has consequences for the quantity of exchanges, since the time spent doing passive and noncommunicative activities on the smartphone leaves less time for offline social interactions. Yet the good news is that noncommunicative use has no impact on the quality of relationships.

Anja Stevic came to the following conclusion: "What we can learn from this study relates to our smartphone literacy. Being aware of how we use smartphones is key to tailoring it best to our needs and goals. In that sense, knowing what can take away our time from close relationships and what can actually benefit them is one step closer to having better social lives immersed with omnipresent technology."

Publication details

Stevic, A., Schmuck, D., Karsay, K., & Matthes, J. (2021). Are smartphones enhancing or displacing face-to-face communication with close ties? A panel study among adults. International Journal of Communication, 15, 792-813.

The researchers from the University of Vienna and the KU Leuven investigated the influence of smartphone use on the quantity and quality of relationships with family and friends. Data were collected and analyzed in the course of a two-wave panel survey in March-April and July-August 2018 with a quota sample of 461 participants. The quantitative survey focused on general smartphone use and on the characteristics of in person contact with family members and friends. (Image © Keira Burton)
Anja Stevic is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna since August 2018. She studied journalism, communication and political science at the University of Zagreb, the University of Vienna and University of Warsaw. As a graduate student, she was a visiting researcher at the MSU Social Science Research Centre in 2016. Her research focuses on social media and well-being, media effects and mobile communication. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdME Research Group)
Desirée Schmuck is an Assistant Professor (tenure track) of Digital Media Effects at the School for Mass Communication Research of the KU Leuven. Her research focuses on the effects of digital political communication, stereotypes and prejudice in online media and the effects of digital media use on adolescents and adults. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdME Research Group)
Kathrin Karsay is a as a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Mass Communication Research at KU Leuven, Belgium. Kathrin's main research focuses on media effects on mental health and well-being. She covers several relevant topics in the fields of media psychology and health communication – with a strong focus on young media users. (Image & Text © Kathrin Karsay)
Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication Science with a focus on Advertising Research, Head of the division of Advertising Research and Media Effects (AdME) and Chair of the Department of Communication. His research focuses on effects of various forms of advertising, the process of public opinion formation, news framing, and empirical methods. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdME Research Group)