« Mobile communication is being used in the pursuit of romance, in the coordination of families, in the exchanging of humor and gossip, and in many other daily situations. In each case, there are ritual forms, there is reliance on co-present understandings, and there is development—and sometimes erosion—of social cohesion. »
At first sight, it is obvious, that a cell phone is designed to maintain social relationships at all times. By phoning or text messaging one’s peers, one is able to never feel alone. As we all know, for teenagers, cell phones are part and parcel of their newly-discovered private life, a space in which adults are not authorized without permission. This fact of modern like has profoundly modified the family cell and shaken the preconceived ideas that many parents may have had about about parenting and parental concerns! Cell phones have reduced the importance of the family during the socialization process. On the other hand, friends and social networks have been able to to benefit from that loss of power of the family. Unlike a few decades ago, a teenager can constantly be reached by his or her friend through his or her cell phone. From this, we can deduce two important consequences of cell phones on one’s social relationship. While cell phones enhance relationships with friends and relatives link, it can also have a rather destructive impact upon what was once called « the family« .
But this assumption needs to be nuanced in the sense that cell phones also change the original bounds of generations. A poll from 2007 shows that already 33% of the teenagers under 21 years-old were using their cell phones to contact their grand-parents. An action that they certainly would not have done without the help of technology. Furthermore, more and more elderly people tend to use cell phones and tablets. We are certainly not talking about the same way of using them as teenagers, and certainly not the same kinds of technologies, but still, those facts can alter the hasty judgements about cell phones developing individualization.
In order to understand more clearly what the effects on traditional social structures are, let’s look at the socialization of cell phones. In other words, how people are sensitized to cell phones during their social integration and during their social interactions. According to the social enterprise ConnectAD the average American spends 2.7 hours a day « socializing » on his/her mobile device. We naturally tend to think that those hours are only for personal and individual purpose. But once again, when we take a look at some of the data, those ideas turn out to be completely wrong: 19% of people between 18 and 29 years old appear to donate to charities at least once a year via text messages. Thus, even though cell phones incite people to get more self-centered physically speaking, the technology also enables the means of being generous and altruistic.
More generally speaking, is the physical presence obligatory for someone to be really influenced by someone else, and thus to be socialized? For both Durkheim and Goffman, two major sociologists of the 20th century, social cohesion takes place only in physically co-present situations. But when they wrote their theories, cell phones were not yet invented, and even if it is unfair to attempt to criticize either of them about any of their theories, we can safely assume than society has undergone major changes due to the presence of cell phones in everyone’s lives. Nobody can deny that physical presence is important if not essential to create a durable relationship. But more and more, as Ling points out, cell phones have also become essential part in our every day rituals. These rituals make up a substantial part of the culture, and cell phones have even managed to impose their own rituals. For Ling, these rituals have such power that they are a determining factor, providing a glue that holds social groups together. Although the use of cell phones has indeed created a new kind of language it has not created new bonds as says Ling. Technological mediation has only served to reinforce social groups that already existed, because most of the communication enabled by cell phones is shared with close friends and family.
Interesting fact: those social groups (close friends and family) were not really physically torn apart a few decades ago. People did not tend to move from a city to another as we do now. So bonds stayed the same and physical communication was the only way to communicate. But the fact that 80% of the French population have their « baccalaureat » implies that at least 50% of them continue their studies. Most of them move away from the family home, and set up in another city. In that perspective, cell phones would only be a way of keeping in touch with those social cells that people don’t want to see disappear. The physical need has first been replaced by the voice, and now more and more, the other senses are taken into account, so the physical presence can be replaced fully: Skype is a perfect example of the evolution of the communication technologies. The question is, how long will it be before we can virtually touch our friends and loved ones at a distance and what effect will that have on our social structures?