We looked at data from the World Values Survey – a large nationally representative U.S. poll. Respondents reported how frequently they obtained information from various sources, including TV, radio, the internet, other people and their mobile phones. We found that the more often Americans used their phones to obtain information, the less they trusted strangers. They also reported feeling less trust in their neighbors, people from other religions, and people of other nationalities. Importantly, using phones for information had no bearing on how much people trusted their friends and family.
It’s the phone, really
This pattern of results suggests that there is something about relying on phones for information that might be eroding trust specifically in “outsiders.” It could be that by substituting screen time for interactions with strangers, we are forgoing opportunities to build a general sense of trust in others.
But another possibility is that there is nothing special about obtaining information through phones. Rather, the information we consume – regardless of the medium – might somehow lead us to trust others less. To be sure, mass media is replete with stories about the negative elements of human nature – from wars to terrorism and crime. Perhaps, then, it is the information itself that is eroding trust.
However, we found that getting information from other media – such as TV, radio and newspapers – was associated with trusting others more, not less. It was even true for people who got their information online over the internet but through a laptop computer rather than a mobile device. This pattern points the finger right back at our phones.