MA Thesis: ‘Co-present smartphone use: An ethnographic study of the contributions of smartphone use during conversations’


Several researchers have examined the negative effects of smartphone use during conversations. Research regarding the possible positive effects of smartphone use during conversations, however, is scarce. Hence, this study aimed to answer to the question: ‘To what extent and under which conditions does smartphone use positively contribute to a conversation? To answer this question, I conducted an ethnographic study within a family.

By conducting interviews and participant observations I discovered that smartphone use can positively contribute to a conversation in various ways. First, smartphones are frequently used as an ‘extended mind’: Family members use their phone to look up information, as a measurement tool, or as a fact-checking tool during conversations. Second, people use their smartphones during conversations to express emotions and to help others visualize a story. Finally, I observed that the participants in my study displayed hypocrisy towards smartphone use during conversations: Although they mentioned that smartphone use during conversations is not acceptable, they were all observed to be guilty of this behaviour.

Concluding, the findings of this study indicate that smartphone use can contribute to conversations, although this positive contribution depends on the context: it needs to be ‘appropriate’ for using one’s smartphone, and the group of interaction partners need to mutually trust each other to use their smartphone as a way of self-expression. However, given that I was able to study only one context due to the constraints that were created by the COVID-19 outbreak, further research should be conducted to validate these findings in different contexts and situations.

Keywords: smartphones, conversations, intimacy, relationships

Read my full thesis here