“Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Those were the first words ever spoken via telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the then-newfangled contraption, uttered those words to his assistant, Thomas Watson, in 1876.1
Today, Alexander Graham Bell would have been able to simply send a text to Mr. Watson. He may even have shortened the message to something like, “U busy come over,” without adding punctuation. Now that cellphones are ubiquitous and are a primary method of communication, some researchers have become interested in how cellphones affect communication skills.
There is no question that cellphones, particularly smartphones, have drastically changed society as a whole. They affect the way we do business, nurture relationships, check in with children and socialize with friends. But are these effects negative or positive—or both?
Gaining Some Historical Perspective
For those who were born during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ubiquitous nature of smartphones is easy to take for granted. This generation grew up with them. In fact, many people can recall receiving their first cellphone when they were still rather young. Yet, earlier generations can readily remember how different life was before this technology was widely available and affordable, and can keenly understand the complex nature of the question, “How have cellphones changed us socially?”
Before it became commonplace for everyone to possess a cellphone, conversations took place in person or via landline phones. To use a landline phone, one had to stay in roughly the same place for the duration of the conversation. This limited the possibilities for multitasking during calls and required the individuals to more closely focus on the topic of conversation.
The increasing reliance on texting as a form of communication both makes communication easier and more convenient and encourages the senders of texts to keep their messages as abbreviated as possible.
The use of emojis and GIFs further serves to limit written communication, allowing a standardized picture to complement a text by replacing certain words, or to serve as the sum of the text. Emojis and GIFs allow for greater convenience in communication, and they also strive to mimic some of the visual cues that are otherwise lacking in cellphone communication.
How Cellphones Affect Communication Skills
If you’re curious about how cellphones affect communication skills, it’s important to consider both positive and negative effects. Overall, cellphones have made communication more readily available; you can pick up your phone and instantly text or call someone almost anywhere in the world, provided they have cell reception available. Never before in history have humans been so connected to each other on a global scale.
Yet, it’s ironic that while cellphones have made communication more convenient and accessible, they may have also damaged our communication skills. Many people text more often than they call — again, for the sake of convenience. Since text messages are typically short and rely on abbreviations and emojis, many people no longer benefit from the exercise of writing out long-form communications.
One study published in 2017 evaluated the effects of cellphone usage on students’ writing skills. The study participants were collegiate students at the University of Peshawar. The scientists found that because the students didn’t use standard language while texting, their writing skills suffered as a result.2
It’s possible that cellphones have negatively affected speaking and listening communication skills as well. This is because in-person conversations benefit from visual cues, such as body language, facial expressions and gesticulations. All of these visual cues can allow individuals to add a deeper layer of meaning to their spoken words.
It’s not possible to fully replicate these important visual cues during spoken conversations on mobile phones. People can use video conferencing apps on their phones. However, because of the small screens, it’s not possible to experience all of the body language, gesticulations and other cues. As such, the listener may miss out on valuable, unspoken information.
How Have Cellphones Changed Us Socially?
There are many ways in which cellphones have changed us socially—both positive and negative. On the positive side, greater connectivity can be a lifesaver. For instance, if you get into a car accident in a remote area and you need urgent medical attention, you can immediately call for help instead of trying to hike to the nearest gas station or waiting for a passerby.
Smartphones can also enrich our lives and enhance our quality of life in certain ways. Imagine, for example, a person who desperately needs mental healthcare, yet is too introverted to walk into a therapist’s office. A smartphone app can connect this person to a qualified therapist—all from within the comfort of the patient’s home.
But even as cellphones have improved life in certain ways, they can also be detrimental. Since countless people carry out their daily routines with their cellphones close at hand, it’s often assumed that if you send a text to a friend or coworker, you’ll get an answer right away. The expectation of near-instant results can fuel a lack of patience in other areas of life.
Text-based communication can also lead to misunderstandings. Because auditory and visual conversational cues are lacking in text messages, it can be easier to mistake gentle sarcasm for a rude remark. This may lead to a rise in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Along similar lines, for many people, cellphones are a gateway to social media. As long as you have access to a signal, you can check your Facebook, Instagram or other apps within a matter of seconds.
Some people lead active social lives in the real world and only use social media to enhance their real-world connections. Others place a high priority on the number of “Likes” they get on a picture and may become anxious or depressed if they think their online friends are ignoring them. Because cellphones make social media more readily available, some people may fall victim to social media-related depression and anxiety.
How To Improve Your Communication Skills in the Digital Age
If you’re concerned about how your cellphone is affecting your communication skills or social life, you can actively work on reclaiming your in-person communication abilities. Take baby steps. Start by calling people more often, rather than just texting them. Then, try to have more in-person conversations, such as by visiting a professor during office hours instead of sending an email.
Make plans to see your friends—in the real world, not on social media—on a regular basis. Invite a friend out to lunch. Make a point of turning your cellphone off when you sit at the table and ask your friend to do the same. Enjoying in-person conversations more often will simultaneously strengthen your communication skills and allow you to forge deeper, more genuine connections with those around you.
While pursuing your degree at Grand Canyon University, you will acquire verbal and written communication skills as you pursue your academic and career dreams. In addition to the skillsets received in our programs, GCU offers extensive enrichment opportunities, including more than 70 clubs and organizations that allow you to truly connect with your peers. Click on the button at the top of your screen to Request Info about becoming a GCU student and find out how you can blend your passion with purpose.
1 The Library of Congress, America’s Story, The First Telephone Call in October 2021.
2 ResearchGate, Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Students' Writing Skills: A Case Study of University of Peshawar in October 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.