Is technology decreasing kids’ ability to communicate face-to-face?

teens and cell phonesQ: As a mother and a student examining media as a social issue, I’m concerned that technology is decreasing youth’s ability to communicate face-to-face, largely because most of their communication and activities are done through a screen. Is there evidence for this concern?
~  Face Facts, Bridgeport, CT

A: Dear Face,

Young people walk hand in hand, talking to others on their phones. They sit at a restaurant together, staring down at their mobile screens. It is now rare to see youth without a phone in hand, earbuds plugged in, texting, instagramming or tweeting. And with all of their scrolling, playing, photographing and status updating, they often miss out on the people and experiences happening around them. They have more connectivity than ever – and far less connectedness to others and to the world.

Not only are they disconnected in the moment, but this focus on devices can hinder their development of the social skills needed to communicate with others in-person. Teachers and others who work with adolescents have noticed several differences in the way young people communicate now as opposed to just a few years ago:

  1. Eye Contact: Used to communicating through a screen, many youth do not look others in the eye when they are talking to them. Instead, they look down, not because they are embarrassed or ashamed, but because they are accustomed to communicating through the screen held there.
  2. Body Language: As with the difficulty making eye contact, digitally connected youth can lose their sense of personal space and awareness of where people are physically. They may stand at awkward distances from each other or bump into others while walking and texting.
  3. Focus: Multitasking between devices or between devices and real life results in skipping from one input or thought to another as rapidly as possible, splitting attention between experiences. Less attention is paid to each experience and the richness of each interaction declines.
  4. Conversations are conducted in constantly shifting subgroups of those whose heads are up while others are looking down at their phones. In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle talks of “the Rule of Threes” among college students – that three other faces must be up in order for one to look down at the phone. This keeps conversations simple, safe and superficial, easily dropped into and out of.

Although technology makes this decline in our ability to communicate one-on-one possible, it is not the direct cause. Mobile phones are just tools and, used in healthy and safe ways, can help us communicate and stay connected (or reconnect) to people we love and can help us form new relationships with others all over the world. Technology only distances us when we misuse these tools by allowing them to come between us rather than connecting us.

I usually suggest to kids that, when they communicate, they try upgrading the quality of their interactions by one. So if they are thinking of tweeting, text! If they are thinking of texting, talk! If they are thinking of talking, meet! Rather than using our devices to buffer us from the awkwardness of closer connection, risk it and reap the rewards of greater and deeper human connectedness.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician