Robert Kneschke /

A Pew study reveals growing consensus—and points of contention—in the do’s and don’ts of cellphone use.

If you’re like most Americans, you treat your phone like another appendage. It’s always in reach, and it’s always on, beaming messages, photos, and notifications to you in real time. Mobile devices—particularly of the smart variety—are physical fixtures in public and private life. You can hardly get through dinner without someone scrolling through their news feeds mid-conversation.

A new study from the Pew Research Center reveals just how attached we all are to our phones—and how we’re writing new etiquette rules around them.

Among the 3,217 respondents, there was a surprising degree of consensus on certain cellphone do’s and don’ts. 77 percent of Americans think it’s OK to use a cellphone while walking down the street, and 75 percent think it’s OK on public transportation. Meanwhile, upwards of 80 percent consider cellphone use to be off limits at family dinners, meetings, church, or movie theaters.

These results belie the generalized grumbling about gadget-obsessed “kids these days” that tends to dominate op-ed pages. Although younger people are more tolerant of cellphone use overall, Americans of all ages agree that mobile devices are permissible in public settings and not in quiet, intimate ones.

Restaurants, however, are a gray area: Only 38 percent of Americans think it’s OK to use a cellphone when dining out (though, judging by the volume of food-related Instagramming, you could have fooled us). The murkiness here makes sense, given the blended nature of the restaurant as a social space. It’s a place that allows people to be private in public.

And it’s in those face-to-face interactions that things really get complicated. While an overwhelming majority of adults (82 percent) feel that cellphone use at least occasionally detracts from social gatherings, 89 percent of them do it anyway. Among those, 78 percent reported that their mobile use “contributed” to the group in some way, such as by sharing a picture of the gathering or finding information that could be interesting to the group.  Only 30 percent said they used their phones to disengage from the conversation. These numbers suggest that smartphones are not as anti-social as they’re often made out to be.

But there’s one major caveat:

The survey did not specify what “using a cellphone” meant, and so the question was open to interpretation. It is possible that people who use their phones more often and in more diverse ways may have wider definition of what “cellphone use” entails, including less intrusive or more social activities such as sending a text message, checking email or taking a photo. Clearly, less frequent users and non-users may more strongly associate the idea of “cell use” with voice calls, which may be seen as more disruptive.

That could explain why older people, who are more likely to use their phones strictly for voice calls, might rate public cellphone use as less acceptable on the whole. In any case, these differing perceptions of what constitutes cell use—along with the gap between what we say is appropriate and what we actually do—are growing pains on the way to a new etiquette for mobile technology. We’re figuring it out as we go.

Top image: Robert Kneschke /

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