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Lab studies explore technology and relationships, teach research methods

image of Group Of Teenage Students Sitting Outside On College Steps Using Mobile Phone

We have all seen this situation: people talking in a group while looking at their cell phones. What is the quality of their interaction? Is anyone bothered by another person checking social media during a conversation? Susan Sprecher is curious to know.

Distinguished Professor of Sociology Susan Sprecher

Distinguished Professor of Sociology Susan Sprecher

Throughout her career, Sprecher, a distinguished professor of sociology at Illinois State University, has studied various aspects of human relationships, including how people first get to know one other. “My students and I have looked at the factors that influence general attraction between individuals—closeness, liking, fun, and enjoyment—and not necessarily romantic attraction,” said Sprecher. “In recent semesters we’ve looked at what—if any—impact technology has on the process of getting acquainted.”

Recent studies have shown that the mere presence of a cell phone or other communication device—even if it is not being used—can have negative effects on the reported quality of face-to-face interactions. Introducing technology into the mix—at first in a covert way—was a variable Sprecher wanted to explore using the social interaction paradigm that she and her student researchers use in a sociology lab in Schroeder Hall. In addition to shedding light on how technology and social networks (along with many other factors), can impact personal interactions, Sprecher uses the lab studies to teach sociology and psychology students about research techniques.

Sprecher and her students have used the lab space for a series of experiments to study how previously unacquainted individuals (college students at Illinois State signing up for research credit) become acquainted. Their studies have examined a number of issues, ranging from the role of similarity in initial liking to how the mode of communication (text messages vs. face-to-face) affect the getting-acquainted process. More recently, they have gauged participants’ reactions to technology use during conversations between people who are just getting to know one another.

“I wanted to look at how the actual use of cell phones and social media, such as Facebook, impacted the perceived quality of interactions,” said Sprecher. We’re interested in how it can impact the mood and the impression people have about their interactions.”

Psychology graduate student Adam Hampton (right) conducts a Skype session

Psychology graduate student Adam Hampton (right) conducts a Skype session

The experiments involved pairs of Illinois State student volunteers interacting in a get-acquainted exercise using Skype. The student pairs began the activity as strangers, but gradually learned more about each other by working their way through a series of scripted questions.

“The questions increased in intimacy as the experiment progressed,” said Sprecher. “Students got to know more about each other by asking questions that dealt with emotions and views on relationships.”

While all the pairs of students in the study interacted via Skype, the twist came when one member of some of the pairs was able to check his or her cell phone and social network postings while interacting with the other person. The individuals using social media had those portals open on their screens along with Skype, allowing them to check postings without the other person knowing. Cell phones were also kept out of sight of the other person and glanced at surreptitiously.

Sprecher and her student researchers found that the use of social media and cell phones seemed to have no negative impact on the quality of the social interactions. “Students reported that they really liked the questions they used to get to know one another and they felt they had very meaningful interactions with others via Skype,” said Adam Hampton, a psychology graduate student researcher and co-author of an article on the study. “Overall, students had a very positive experience with the activity.”

Sprecher and Hampton point out the hyper-connectedness of many millennials can account for the relative comfort they have multi-tasking in online and face-to-face interactions. “The real stress could actually be caused when a person is not able to access their social network,” said Hampton. “People could be worried they’re missing something important online.”

Sprecher is already planning to expand on this study by introducing other variables, such as more overt use of cell phones and social media during face-to-face interactions. “Because technology is so pervasive and because it evolves so rapidly, we want to look at the changing norms in communications,” she said.

Distinguished Professor of Sociology Susan Sprecher (third from left) with students Alicia Ramos, Lisa Lodesky, Seth Thomas, Ryan Willard, and Omi Bartov at the University Research Symposium

Distinguished Professor of Sociology Susan Sprecher (third from left) with students Alicia Ramos, Lisa Lodesky, Seth Thomas, Ryan Willard, and Omi Bartov at the University Research Symposium

The undergraduate and graduate student researchers working with Sprecher on the get-acquainted studies are involved in all levels of the research process from data collection to interpretation. Students have also presented the findings of these and other studies conducted in the sociology lab at the annual University Research Symposium. That experience gives students a solid foundation in research skills; a real advantage for those looking to pursue further graduate education.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hands-on experience with data collection and research in a lab setting and I’ve really gotten to know the research process,” said Hampton, who has worked with Sprecher as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. “I’ve been accepted into a Ph.D. program at Purdue and working on these studies has been a great preparation for that.”

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