Connective Obligation

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Feeling obligated to stay connected is a feeling that affect those with connections to others through mobile and web devices. When one can access information anywhere, at any point in the day, one may increasingly feel the need to stay "always on". When phones were limited to rooms and limited to cords, one could only respond to phone calls at work and at home. Now that the majority of people can communicate anywhere, many may feel obligated to be able to respond to an important message or E-mail. Should the message arrive when the person is not connected, feeling of guilt may arise.

Cell phone researcher Richard Ling studied these feelings of obligation in teenagers whose use of phones was a part of everyday life. Ling found that "during the focus groups, teens related many stories of friends and acquaintances who get insulted, angry or upset if a text message or phone call is not responded to immediately", and that, "as a result, many teens we heard from said they feel obligated to return texts and calls as quickly as possible, to avoid such tensions and misunderstandings"[1].

Several adolescents spoke to the perceived obligation that accompanies cell phones to always be reachable. One high school girl explained her frustration at these expectations:

That is one aggravating thing I find about phones…when it gets to the point where you can receive like all your messages and all this, then you have no way of disconnecting. That didn’t used to bother me until on a family vacation, my uncle, the entire time typing his emails, doing his business. It’s like, ‘Why is it so hard for you to put that away for one day and enjoy like a family meal?’ And see because like everybody knows that this person can be contacted 24/7, that’s what they do, and then that person feels obligated…. A person gets to the point where they can’t, where you can’t just be like, ‘I’m going on a trip people, I’ll be gone for a week!’[2]

At the end of several of the focus groups, participants were asked to share with the group what they thought were the best and worst things about having a cell phone. Several responded to this question by noting the tension between the benefits of always being connected with those around them and the downside of always being expected to be available. As one boy put it, "The best thing is that it’s so convenient and you can just talk to people all the time, and like even if you’re not at home, and like, the worst thing is like, when people keep calling you…it just gets annoying".[3] A high school girl echoed his sentiments when she said, "It just keeps you connected and you can talk to other people, but in return it also sometimes just gets annoying. People calling you…so kind of a give and take."[4]

Such feelings, while common, were not universal. There were a very small number of adolescents in the focus groups who seemed unconcerned with the social expectations that accompanied cell phone ownership or who managed others’ expectations by simply limiting their availability. As one boy explained, he is simply "bad at answering my cell phone, and um, I just leave it on the counter and walk somewhere else and come back and see missed call. So people expect that from me. They don’t expect necessarily a quick answer."[5]


  1. Ling, Richard, Amanda Lenhart, Scott Campbell and Kristen Purcell. Teens and Mobile Phones. Chapter Three: Attitudes towards cell phones. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Published Apr 20, 2010. Accessed 20 Apr 2011.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.