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Not-So-Social Media: Why People Have Stopped Talking On Phones

There was a time when teens would spend hours on the phone gabbing with friends. Now, that's the stodgiest behavior imaginable.
There was a time when teens would spend hours on the phone gabbing with friends. Now, that's the stodgiest behavior imaginable.

Emma Wisniewski felt exposed. The New York-based actress had moments where she had to open up in a way that made her feel particularly vulnerable.

She had to talk on the phone. In front of people — her fellow actors and the audience.

"I've done several plays now that required talking on landlines, and what always strikes me is the relatively public nature of it," she says.

The desire to communicate privately is one reason people have largely abandoned talking on the phone as a social medium. What was once a major indoor sport, taking up hours of many people's days, is now not only more limited but may be going the way of mailed letters and express telegrams.

"Now, calling on a phone is almost like a violation," says Scott Campbell, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Michigan. "It's very greedy for your social presence, and texting is not."

Hiding From Mom

Wisniewski played a 16-year-old girl this spring in a play called Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976. As its title suggests, the play is set in America's bicentennial year, nearly 40 years ago.

One detail that made it a period piece was Wisniewski grabbing the phone off the kitchen wall, dragging the long cord into another room. For audience members of a certain age, it was a tableau instantly familiar, yet completely distant.

Those of us in our 40s can remember fighting with our siblings to spend hours on those pea green and lemon yellow landline phones.

As it happens, the play had its premiere in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis where back in 1944 Life magazine took a series of photos of a teenage girl talking on the phone as part of her "evening ritual." She keeps a wary eye out for her mother, who can be seen occasionally looking on with disapproval.

Hiding from Mom is one reason texting took off in the first place, says Danah Boyd, the author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Stretching the phone cord down the hall was no longer good enough to get away from hovering "helicopter" parents.

"This prompted an entire generation to switch to text-based media, starting with instant messaging," Boyd says. "Texting is seen as even more private, because it's harder for Mom to look over your shoulder."

Don't Call Us

Texting became the norm for teens and young adults, but has been adopted by older folks as well.

Boomers are still more apt to pick up the phone in professional contexts, but at work as well as home a ringing phone has come to be seen as an unwanted intrusion.

"I used to think the millennials were wrong about this, but it is an imposition to call someone and say put aside whatever you were doing and give me 30 minutes of your time," says Neil Howe, president of LifeCourse Associates, which consults with corporations about generational attitudes and behaviors.

As Boyd points out, communication is a two-way street. Both parties in the pair have to agree to a plan. Fewer people are willing to engage in a phone conversation, which not only eats up more time than texting but has to be done in that very moment.

"Even if it's someone I know well and love, I resent the intrusion," says Amy Pickworth, a friend of mine who works as an editor at the Rhode Island School of Design. "The phone is so pushy. It's just suddenly so there, demanding, 'Talk to me, say funny things,' or 'I'm sad, cheer me up,' or 'Holy cow, listen to this.' "

Can You Call Back Later?

By contrast, your friends don't need to be available right this very moment to talk via text.

"Conversations can ebb and flow, and it's no big deal," says Boyd, who is a researcher at Microsoft Research and Harvard University. "You'll see teens spend 45 minutes crafting the perfect 'casual' text message to send to someone they have a crush on."

Landline use is down, while mobile phone use is up, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But that includes all the things people do on phones — talking, texting, playing games.

The onslaught of information and time spent with screens is another reason why people are talking less, says Campbell, the Michigan professor.

"You can get a little saturated," he says. "If I'm going to be keeping up in this new, digital world, something's gotta give."

Getting Constant Updates

Most of the people I interviewed for this piece — largely through email — said they do engage in extended phone conversations, often with family members. There's still an intimacy to a phone call that texting can't match.

But those conversations have to compete with a lot of demands for people's time and concentration.

When you're talking on the phone, you've got to be all in. We've probably all had the experience of talking to someone and knowing we've lost their interest when we can hear them start to type in the background.

Or, maybe worse, we've tuned out ourselves, sounding a little drunk as we lose the thread of our own thought as we check out websites.

It's not just that people have grown used to multiple stimuli. Much of what they're looking at is social in nature.

We keep up with family and friends via Facebook, Instagram and other social media channels. Those we're closer with, we might interact with almost constantly through group texts on WhatsApp or Kik.

For many people, there's no need to pick up the phone to catch up. Your friends already know what you did last night.

"You constantly know what's going on," says Nick Politan, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, "so there's no point in ever wanting to catch up with somebody, unless they're really close to you."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.