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Drawing the line on acceptable use of cell phones in public

A new survey outlines how technology is blurring the etiquette rules for what is often private use in public or social settings.

How likely is your cell phone use to offend others? Josh Miller/CNET

You generally won't offend others if you use your cell phone while walking down the sidewalk or on public transportation, but use at the movies or church is definitely out.

Those are some of the findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center on what Americans consider appropriate use of cell phones in public or social settings. The study reflects how technology is rewriting the rules of civility in a world in which 90 percent of the US adult population say they have a cell phone and 31 percent say they never turn it off, Pew said.

"People's cell phone use has injected itself into public spaces," the study's authors said. "This has blurred the line between private and public as often-intimate and occasionally blustering phone conversations have now become a common part of the background noise during bus rides, grocery shopping excursions, picnics, sidewalk strolls, waits in airport terminals and many other public venues."

The Pew survey found that 77 percent of adult Americans felt it was appropriate to use cell phones walking down the street, while 75 percent said it was OK to use them on public transit. Approval ratings begin to drop when you get into more intimate surroundings, with 38 percent saying that cell use at a restaurant is allowable. Cell use at church or a movie is considered allowable by only 4 percent and 5 percent of respondents, respectively. (Similarly, smartwatches have led to concerns the wearable devices are creating antisocial situations.)

"It turns out that people think different kinds of public and social settings warrant different sensitivities about civil behavior," the authors said.

For instance, you may think it rude that that someone might use their cell phone during a social setting, but nearly nine in 10 people believe it perfectly acceptable. However, you would be in the minority, as 89 percent of those surveyed said they used their phones during the most recent social gathering they attended. That use occurred despite 82 percent of respondents saying that they felt such use frequently hurt the quality of conversation in the setting.

The study found that cell phone use was an acceptable activity often tied to the social gathering, with 45 percent saying they used their phone to post a photo or video taken at an event. Some 41 percent said they used their phones to share information about something that occurred at the event. Cell phone use also allowed anti-social behavior, with 16 percent saying they turned to their phone after losing interest in the group.

Predictably, the study found a definite generational divide over cell phone use, with 90 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds finding it appropriate to use phones on public transportation, compared with 54 percent of respondents older than 65. Some 50 percent of younger users found cell use at a restaurant acceptable, compared with 26 percent of their elders.

"Those ages 18 to 29 stand out from their elders on virtually every aspect of how mobile activities fit into their social lives, how they act with their phones and their views about the appropriateness of using phones in public and social settings," the report said. "Younger adults are more engaged with their devices and permissive in their attitudes about when it is OK to use a mobile phone."

The survey polled 3,217 adults between May 30 and June 30.