Article: Face-to-face interaction, in a culture of distraction

Author: Marc Husband | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In this article, Marc Husband considers the significant changes in the use and utilisation of new technologies, such as smartphones and other devices, and their impact on face-to-face interactions in youth work settings. The article suggests that significant changes have begun to manifest in youth work settings regarding interaction, which practitioners feel are significant in the process of communication and the development of youth work and young people’s relationships. The research and theories discussed offer useful ways of understanding new interaction behaviours and begin to develop a language to communicate the positive and negative aspects of the use of new technologies.

Co-present (or face-to-face) interactions might be the ‘assumed’ fundamental method of youth work. In its long history, youth work has been almost exclusively thought about, and written about, in these terms. It is only in the last 15 years where ideas of digital or online youth work have been considered in discussion about the practice. Interest around new technologies and online youth work began in the late 2000s in a report by Davies and Cranston (2008) on youth work and social media. This work focused on the possibilities for developing young people’s digital literacies through youth work. While initial interest in digital forms of youth work were apparent, the motivation to research and theorise this seemed to disappear for the most part. The reasons for this possibly being more to do with a lack of investment in the sector and austerity than a deliberate dismissal of the impact of new technologies. Since this point, it is evident that new technologies have become central to youth work practices and examples of digital youth work have been developed and sustained in practice.

In the UK, there have been a limited number of publications which focus on new technologies and youth work (Pawluczuk, et al, 2019; Melvin, 2019). Therefore, the theories which underpin youth work practice are limited in their consideration of what the technological revolution might mean for youth work theory and practice. Also, none of the previous literature considers how technologies impact on the face-to-face interactions of young people and youth workers.

This article draws on examples from my 2016 research entitled: The new technological environment: The implications for informal educational youth work theory and practice. A study of youth work providers in the Northeast of England (Husband, 2016). This research included a large-scale survey in the north-east of England, interviews with youth work practitioners and focus groups with young people. My research found that technologies have become, ‘important’ if not ‘essential’ in engaging, organising and managing youth work (Husband, 2016). In this article, I explore the shifting status of face-to-face youth work, considering my research findings and theories of symbolic interaction, which could be useful in understanding what is happening in our mediated and human interactions.


The self extended

New technologies have become more than a significant part of young (and older) people’s lives. As the visionary Marshall McLuhan would have suggested, technologies have, in many ways, become an extension of the self (McLuhan and Lapham, 1994). Young people express themselves in the digital space and develop and extend their identities in new social spaces online, they communicate in new and hybrid ways, their relationships are developed and sustained through the ongoing use of technologies. Phones and other branded technologies are a part of a consumer identity which is deeply valued and engrained in culture. We therefore cannot ignore any longer the implications for youth work as a profession and the face-to-face interactions which define it. My own research suggested that the use of new technologies, particularly smartphones, was impacting on the co-present (face-to-face) interactions youth workers were having with young people. I concluded that we must try to understand and work with new interaction behaviours and new ways of being, brought about by the relationships people have with their technologies.


Symbolic ritual and interaction

… they just will not take their eyes off the telly [monitor] or stop what they’re doing even to answer… Even when you’re doing something for them like giving them a cup of tea or something that you’ve made and saying ‘Here you are’, they won’t even look at you and give you eye contact. They won’t take their eyes off the computer and have a conversation with you. (Youth worker 1)

The example above offers a description of the new interactional behaviours which practitioners face in youth work settings. The theories of Erving Goffman (1959) have been employed by youth work theorists, such as Smith (1999) to offer a microanalysis of the norms of face-to-face interaction. This is extremely useful when understanding encounters in public and private space. Goffman’s work on ‘dramaturgy’ suggested that people present a particular ideal version of themselves in social situations and hide other parts of the self. While the concept of an ‘authentic self’ is at best problematic, Goffman’s ideas do helpfully suggest that we offer different presentations of the self in each social situation.

Goffman’s theory of symbolic interaction considered individuals as social actors. Actors, in this sense, behave in specific ways according to their audience. Public social spaces might be seen as the ‘front stage’ in which individuals act out roles and apply a specific social persona in which symbolic rituals are shared. ‘Back stage’ refers to when actors are away from public social situations, and they relax their social persona. A place where actors can discuss, polish, or practice their performances without revealing themselves to the same public audience. For Goffman, micro social rituals, such as saying ‘hello’, making eye contact and shaking hands are important ritual acts which bond actors’ social solidarity. Goffman’s work on the presentation of the self in everyday life helped develop a common language in the realm of symbolic interaction. This has become the basis of much of the recent literature examining the impact of new technologies on social interaction, and the analysis of self-presentation and identity in social network site environments (Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2013; Hewitt and Forte, 2006; Hogan, 2010; Ling, 2008; Menchik and Tian, 2008; Mendelson and Papacharissi, 2010; Rettie, 2009; Tufekci, 2008 – to name but a few).


Task layering

The task-layering which new technologies encourage has stimulated significant changes in social situations. The anti-social or ‘rude’ use of mobile technologies, in particular, has become the focus of many who have investigated how these devices impact on symbolic interactions. Humphreys (2005) analyses this by considering Goffman’s theories of interaction in the present digital context. We are now faced with a new social reality in which, in Goffman’s terms, we are increasingly becoming aware of feelings of social insecurity and vulnerability. For Goffman (1959) there are two categories in social settings, ‘singles’ and ‘withs’. Singles are far more vulnerable to social scrutiny and suspicion, and therefore often develop strategies to protect themselves from the critical gaze of others. The technology (or the mobile phone in Humphreys, 2005, example) acts as a prop. In this environment, it indicates that the individual is not a loner and is ‘with’ somebody or communicating with somebody via the mobile phone. ‘Crosstalk’ is when one of the ‘withs’ is suddenly engaged by (for example) a mobile call, leaving the other ‘with’ momentarily ‘single’ and vulnerable. This ‘single’ then may pick up their mobile phone as a prop to mark themselves as ‘with’. Humphreys’ research highlights new social norms and hegemonies, as people experience the social pressure to answer calls and reply to text messages immediately even when co-present with others. Humphreys (2005) uses Hopper’s (1992) theory of ‘caller hegemony’ to demonstrate this.

The social norm is that when a landline phone is ringing, someone will answer it. Even in an extreme situation where someone is involved in a passionate argument with a loved one, Hopper found overwhelmingly that people will answer their telephone. Inevitably, the face-to-face encounter is superceded by the mediated interruption of the summoning telephone. Such evidence of normative telephone use can be helpful in exploring how people respond to cellphones in public spaces. (Humphreys, 2005: 822)

This analysis provides a useful way of explaining and understanding the increasing trends in mobile use and behaviours of individuals in social situations. While Humphreys’ study focused on mobile phones, Ictech’s (2014) research on Smartphones focused solely on the Millennial generation (i.e. those born between 1980-2000, who have grown up in the West, immersed in a consumer culture of new technologies). Ictech developed Goffman’s theory further, suggesting’:

… there are three types of smartphone crosstalk: exclusive, semi-exclusive, and collaborative. With the addition of smartphone play and solo smartphone activity, interactants can engage in five different types of smartphone use during a social encounter. Smartphones can both disrupt and facilitate face-to-face encounters at any given time. (Ictech, 2014: viii)

Exclusive crosstalk might be seen when the Smartphone interrupts face-to-face interaction in such a way that the social actor with the phone ignores their co-present interactions, focusing on the activity on the phone. Semi-exclusive refers to the actor with the Smartphone attempting to multitask and interact with the phone, while remaining in the presence of others. Collaborative crosstalk might involve one actor answering a call but involving those that are present. This might also involve watching a video together with others on a Smartphone. In this sense, the phone interrupts the co-present interaction but acts as a point of mutual focus for those present. Smartphone play involves shared social activity – for example, taking turns at playing a game on the Smartphone with those co-present. Solo Smartphone activity could involve the use of the phone to listen to music or watch a film, activities which involve immersion into the Smartphone and that are not conducive to co-present social interaction. Ictech (2014) suggests some positive social aspects to Smartphones use; for example, collaborative use of watching videos or looking at photographs together, which might stimulate conversation in co-present situations. 


Interaction rituals and emotional energies

Rich Ling (2008) suggests that technologies are generally having a negative impact on traditional social interactions as they affect the social ‘rituals’ which, for him, are the symbolic, cohesive foundations that human relationships are built upon. Focusing mainly on mobile technologies, Ling refers to the work of Durkheim (1995), Goffman (1959) and Collins (2005) to suggest that the shared rituals such as shaking hands, saying ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’ are being disturbed by mobile use, and therefore the relationships between those that are co-present are potentially weakened. For Ling and his predecessors, human social cohesion relies on a ‘shared repertoire of signals’ that are ‘part of our cultural ballast that have been developed, refined, and re-energized through common use’ (Ling, 2008: 5).

Ling’s research focuses on mobile phone use in social settings. He conceptualises the way in which individuals use these artefacts and how they affect co-present situations. His empirical research also builds on the observational work of Goffman (1959). He describes everyday interactions of people interacting with co-present others while using mobile phones. Ling reflects on the profound change in social behaviours and how people are using mobile phones (and internet-enabled devices) with such intensity. He extends Goffman’s ideas, suggesting that with the possibility brought about by mobile phones, individuals can layer interactions, attending to two or more interactions at once. This requires that individuals perform on multiple ‘front stages’. Ling argues that in this complex social interplay, the social actors’ performance becomes less focused and potentially weaker, as they are lacking the quality and co-present mutual focus of the rituals which Durkheim, Goffman, Collins and Ling himself, claim ‘bond our solidarity’. As Wells Brignall and Van Valey explain: ‘Knowing these rituals and being able to play a proper front stage role is crucial in order for individuals to get along with others’ (Wells Brignall and Van Valey, 2005: 338).

Similarly, Sherry Turkle (2011) points out that we have become ‘pausable’ as ‘our face-to-face conversations are routinely interrupted by incoming calls and text messages’ (Turkle, 2011: 161). She suggests, as we move the phone to our ear or turn to read messages, we are ‘marked absent’ from the co-present conversation and interactions. Turkle argues we are now in a culture of distraction, in which attention and focus are increasingly fragmented. Jason Farman (2012) would argue that when we answer calls or attend to messages, we may be currently seen as marked absent from the co-present, yet we are fully present in the time and space with the person we are talking to, in the flow of communication between the people that we are calling, or messaging.  Farman argues we are mistaken to assume that one kind of interaction is more important than another. For him, each interaction has the same value. Farman’s point is that we focus in and out of situations all of the time. Therefore, to focus into a mobile phone call is to be present in a particular, albeit virtual or digital space, just as we would inhabit the space in which we are having a face-to-face conversation. For Farman, technologies have become so intuitive, so part of the everyday experience, that we experience them as a part of the body. When we answer a text or browse the internet, we embody our devices in a ‘proprioceptive’ experience in which we feel at one with the technology.

As Stald (2008) explains, the mobile becomes an:

…extension of the body and mind, even a kind of ‘additional self’. …the mobile is always close at hand, ear, or eye: it represents a lifeline to self-perception, a means of documenting of social life, expressing preference, creating networks and sharing experiences. To this extent, one could argue that the mobile user is becoming a kind of cyborg. (Stald, 2008: 158)

Farman’s (2012) arguments have significant implications for youth work practice. We can assume, as there is no theory to claim the contrary, that youth work continues to value face-to-face over other forms of interaction, and that interaction will, for the most part, take place in a physical locality, in co-presence. So, as technologies begin to intrude into these spaces and interactions, how do we understand and negotiate face-to-face interaction? What does this mean for the social education aspect of youth work? Do we need to consider technologies as a part of the human being and respect this extension of the self, alongside the ‘traditional’ self?

Returning to my own research, many of the participants discussed this phenomenon in practice. One youth worker discussed the negative effects of Smartphone use in a youth work session.

I think it has a massive effect… Talking to the back of somebody’s head or the side of somebody’s face, and you’d get the odd glance; that happens… Sometimes you feel like you’re disturbing them. (Youth worker 2)

In a discussion with young people, one young person explained how they recognized the changes to ‘traditional’ interactions as follows.

I don’t know if it’s just me or my group of friends who do this because we’re pretty strange. But on the bus coming back from college, there’s normally about 6 of us right, sitting on the bus and we all have our headphones on listening to music, and we’re texting each other although we are in a metre proximity to each other, but we still text each other. Just saves talking and you can just text away and listen to your music at the same time. (Young person 1)

What seems to be suggested here is an increasing atomization of social groups and a change in ‘traditional’ social rituals. As Collins (2005) states, at the centre of all group interaction rituals ‘is the process in which participants develop a mutual focus of attention and become entrained in each other’s bodily micro-rhythms and emotions’ (Collins, 2005: 47). For Collins, ‘authentic’ solidarity can only be sustained through co-present (face-to-face) interactions. These interactions generate ‘emotional energies’, opening the possibilities for positive or negative outcomes. Confidence and enthusiasm are affected by face-to-face interactions, requiring individuals to consider behaviours and prepare strategies for social situations. In this sense, the acquisition of interaction skills is vital in the development of any relationship, and only come through practice and prolonged exposure to these conditions (Wells Brignall and Van Valey, 2005). Subsequently, the time spent away from these experiences will have a detrimental effect on the acquisition of social skills.

Changes in interaction habits have not gone unnoticed, and many of the participants in my own research gave examples of how technologies have had an impact on face-to-face interaction in negative ways. 

It sometimes annoys us that you can have a room full of young people who are talking to each other on Facebook.  They don’t turn round and face each other and have a conversation. (Youth worker 3)

While giving examples of how they were irritated by these behaviours, they also pointed out that many of them were guilty of it themselves.

Statements such as ‘I know I’m dead ignorant… but I just can’t stop’, were a common theme throughout the young people’s interviews. The way in which the interviewees reacted to the situation seems, in some part, to be related to their age and experience, which is in turn related to particular norms and values. Young people and younger youth workers empathised more with each other with regards to their behaviours, seemingly recognising the dilemma of having to prioritise between messaging via their phones and interacting in co-presence. Other youth workers recognised the issue but accepted this as ‘the way things are’ explaining that it goes unchallenged as there is no clear thought in terms of how this behaviour affects our interactions, conversations, and relationships, and in turn how the consequences for our future social norms are affected.

Collins (2005, 2011) and others might argue that sending and receiving messages via technologies is just a poor substitute for ‘pure’ co-present face-to-face interaction and the ‘emotional energies’ these ‘real’ interactions entrain. Yet, there seems to be evidence that this is the oxygen that helps keep strong relationships alive in modern times.  We might, then, view mediated communication as essential maintenance to group and interpersonal relationships.


Alone together in youth work settings?

So everybody’s looking after their own interests instead of looking after the interests of the community and of the many… I think that on many levels, people are feeling increasingly depressed and deprived of social interaction and care and compassion of other people. (Youth work coordinator 1)

There were many examples described by the practitioners of changes in behaviours, as one practitioner stated: ‘we’re starting to see now young women who don’t know how to communicate because they do it through their phones’ (Youth worker 4). If this is the case, it has significant implications and youth workers would then have to ‘work from where young people are at’ (Smith, 1999) and adapt practice to fit this preference, as a starting point at least. Some youth workers talked about how schools were experiencing high numbers of young people with poor social skills due to their overuse of technologies and, interestingly, were asking youth work providers to work with them to improve their social skills (Husband, 2016). Whether this lack of sociability was solely down to new technologies is questionable and perhaps it is not useful to speculate that this was the case without understanding the group better. It might be equally valid to suggest that without technologies, these young people could be even more socially isolated. Equally, these examples could be seen as confirmation of Wells Brignall and Van Valey’s (2005) claims that young people are increasingly losing the skills of interaction with adults. 



Turkle (2011) suggests that through the use of technologies, we are increasingly encouraging environments and behaviours in which we are ‘alone together’. We are in the presence of others but are distracted from co-present interaction, through the use of technologies and the increasing layering of tasks. Within my research, there was evidence of a significant move towards new complex social interactions. It is interesting to note that, for the most part, young people were using technologies to organise and sustain relationships, in which they would inevitably meet in the co-present (Husband, 2016). Although there was a certain bias inherent in the research (interviewing young people who attended youth clubs) there was a strong sense that young people craved co-present social interaction with one another. As one youth worker stated: ‘they’re desperate to be together’ (Youth worker 5). If we understand this in Collins’ (2005) terms, we might view youth clubs and provision as sites of positive interaction rituals in which ‘emotional energies’ are entrained. This explains the reasons why young people continue to want to be together socially yet, when together, feel the responsibility to tend to their mediated tasks in the co-present. As such, they layered activities of co-presence and communication through technology. This creates situations in which young people have to make interaction choices and select priorities. There was a sense that, while they want to be together with other young people in co-presence, they often prioritised digital communication with friends over face-to-face interaction with youth workers.

New technologies, in this sense, let us act out our lives in individualised ways but we are always in reach in the way that Turkle (2011) refers to as the ‘Goldilocks Effect’; we keep people ‘not too close, not too far, just right’. Our mediated sociability is potentisally too convenient, it allows us to use our ‘friends’ when we want them and to pause them when we do not. It is interesting to consider young people’s motivation to be together in co-presence. We are, of course, socialised from an early age through family, community, playgroups, nurseries and schools and therefore, for the most part, have an ‘embodied’ disposition as sociable beings through the experience of our upbringing, through primary and secondary ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1986).

Collins (2011) suggests that it is only in co-present interaction rituals that we experience the ‘emotional energies’ which stimulate interaction entrainment, so that we might return to interactions again. Without this energy, we potentially lose the motivation to interact and thus sustain friendships and communities. For Collins, this is what makes us human, and he also points out that mediated communication cannot transfer ‘emotional energies’ as effectively as in co-presence.

Although Collins’ argument is strong, we live in a world of increasing mediated communication. We need to avoid engaging in moral panic discourse, particularly as it was evident in my research that changes were not only manifesting in youth culture but among all age ranges. Whether we view communication through technologies as a less valuable means of communication, what is evident is that technologies at this point in history are central to the organisation of social life in the co-present. The evidence suggests that youth work must address these interaction changes and be conscious of the purpose and social focus of the work. Perhaps we need to reframe the binary argument of technology being ‘bad’, and face-to-face ‘good’ – and have a discussion about the importance of the new technologies to young people, and how these extensions of the self manifest and function. This could allow us to think clearly about what is important in a new world of social interaction, and what social education might look like in this new environment.


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Last Updated: 4 April 2022


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Dr. Marc Husband is a Lecturer in Community and Youth work at the University of Sunderland. He has carried out research for both the University of Sunderland and Durham University. He has a strong interest in informal education, new technologies, and also popular culture.