Chanan Walia, a sophomore at University of California, Berkeley, can’t remember the last time he used a doorbell or even knocked on a door.
At home, his father installed a fancy, Wi-Fi-connected doorbell. Mr. Walia, 19 years old and a computer science major, says he just isn’t comfortable ringing them. He and his friends have become so accustomed to texting one another upon arrival, he says, that the sound of a doorbell feels like an unexpected jolt.
“Doorbells are just so sudden. It’s terrifying,” says Tiffany Zhong, 20, the founder of Zebra Intelligence, which helps companies conduct custom research and gather insights on people born in the past two decades.
There’s no published research about doorbell phobia, but it’s a real thing. In a poll by a Twitter user earlier this month that got more than 11,000 votes, 54% of respondents said “doorbells are scary weird.”
Some millennials and Gen Zers say they won’t even consider answering a ring at the door until they’ve checked the security camera.
The doorbell freak-out reflects the ascendance of mediated communication, which means people interacting through technological devices rather than directly. It’s not so much about screen time versus face time as it is a merger of the two.
Smartphones provide extra information thought by users to be vital to day-to-day interactions. Without smartphones to help, encounters can feel fraught.
“Typically, doorbells are for outsiders,” says Ms. Zhong, whose LinkedIn profile describes her as a “teen whisperer.” “A text signifies it’s a friend.”
An entire smartphone-wielding generation has begun communicating primarily via mobile device, even when other means are available.
According to Pew Research Center, 92% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 own a smartphone, the highest percentage of any age group. Just 42% of Americans who are at least 65 own a smartphone.
Many of the latest apps and services are tethered to mediated communication, from hailing a ride through Uber Technologies Inc. to ordering food on GrubHub Inc. to swiping left or right on Match Group Inc.’s Tinder. There are companies where the desk phone is optional but Slack Technologies Inc.’s Slack chat app isn’t.
People in general are making fewer phone calls to one another, but the trend is moving especially quickly in customer service. The number of customer-service calls declined 17% from 2015 to this year at 1,351 businesses in 80 countries surveyed by consulting firm Digital Data.
Those calls are being supplanted by chat, bots and self-service options. Phone calls with actual humans are now just 54% of all customer-service interactions with businesses, says Digital Data.
A United Parcel Service driver in Cumming, Ga. UPS still trains drivers to ring the doorbell, but they don’t wait for an answer unless a signature is required for delivery.Photo: David Goldman/Associated Press
The communication shift has affected the company that rings more doorbells than any other in the U.S.: United Parcel Service Inc. UPS still trains its drivers to ring any doorbell available when making deliveries, but drivers don’t wait for a live human unless a signature is required.
UPS also offers customers the ability to receive an email or text when a package is on its way. Customers can even track the location of the delivery truck. UPS says it built the technology because customers demanded it.
Since it launched its online service in 2009, GrubHub has given customers the option to specify that delivery persons text instead of ringing the doorbell, says a GrubHub spokeswoman.
Some young people say they shun the doorbell simply because they see no need for it. “It’s like antiquated, knocking on doors is so far back that it predates any experience people my age have ever had,” says Drake Rehfeld, a junior at the University of Southern California.
The doorbell isn’t about to disappear. The National Association of Home Builders says there is no sign that new houses are being built without doorbells, and they often are required by local building codes.
Like supermarket checkout lines and bank tellers, though, doorbells are being forced to change with the technologically disruptive times.
A Wi-Fi-connected doorbell and camera made by Ring. The device allows two-way communication without having to make face-to-face eye contact.Photo: Ring
“When we call a car [using Uber], we watch it come to us,” says James Siminoff, founder and chief executive of Ring, which makes a Wi-Fi-connected doorbell with an embedded camera.
He says Ring is primarily about giving people a way to have two-way communication with someone at their front door without ever actually having to make eye contact with the person.
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, says such innovations could further the decline in face-to-face interaction by teenagers and young adults.
“Electronic communication supplies some feelings of connection, but studies find it does not equal face-to-face interaction for emotional closeness or mental health,” says Ms. Twenge, whose book “iGen” is about how smartphones may contribute to an epidemic of anxiety and unhappiness in young people.
‘Typically, doorbells are for outsiders,’ says Tiffany Zhong, 20 years old. ‘A text signifies it’s a friend.’Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Walia, the UC Berkeley sophomore, says he and his friends also don’t ring doorbells because they’d rather not run into each other’s parents. Other young people say the doorbell is a loser when it comes to efficiency. Why not just text to say you’re about to get to the door?
“You carry your phone with you everywhere,” says Adriane Kaylor, a freelance writer who lives in a New York City suburb. “It’s basically the teddy bear for adults. I personally sleep with my phone under my pillow. It just makes sense to get the most out of it.”