The same bubbly, outgoing student who texts and tweets her way through the day sat face to face with a client at a homeless shelter in downtown Louisville. The man recalled his poignant story of struggling to overcome multiple drug addictions and incarcerations, but every time he said something remarkable, the student froze. No follow-up questions. No reacting to cues for further probing.
Granted, for many young people, being asked to interact with strangers to create a short documentary is an intense and possibly overwhelming learning experience. But her performance was consistent with what we have witnessed all year inside and outside of the classroom. For young people, constant technology use is eroding essential emotional and interpersonal skills. They are failing to develop the ability to have face-to-face conversations, tell stories, and interact in personal ways.
According to the Pew Research Center, one in three teens send over 100 text messages a day. More than half use texting to communicate daily with friends, versus only 33% talking face to face. Cell phone is rampant at most schools despite attempts to restrict it.
M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together is one of several insightful reads that are “techno-skeptic.” She shares that some teenagers claim to be petrified of talking on the phone because of its immediacy and spontaneity compared with crafting texts and tweets. We informally polled our own students, and many claimed that even when in a relationship they texted and tweeted instead of talking on the phone.
To make matters worse, there is an addictive quality to the constant connectivity of instant communication. This isn’t just an issue for the younger generation. When the cell phone buzzes, we reach for our phones. When we hear the chime of an e-mail reaching the inbox, we stop what we’re doing to check the message. It’s like Pavlov’s drooling dog—the stimulus makes us crave the attention and satisfaction of receiving a blip. Look what it’s done to our drivers with the dangerous phenomenon of texting while driving.
Overly embracing fragmented modern communication is also changing notions of human community. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this constant accessibility is that two people are never alone. Even the community of family is being fragmented. This generation often regards it as totally acceptable to answer a text while sitting at a table with family. As the norm of communication shifts to the digital world, it becomes ok to press pause and interrupt.
To be sure, there are advantages to communicating in fragments and there are many jobs that don’t require conversation in our modern economy. Prudent use of digital communication allows us to join and engage with useful online communities. As with any temptation, leisure, or distraction, balance is key. Many of the people I know who are able to juggled their online worlds with face time are in their late twenties and early thirties—they just missed the era of being tethered to gadgets during their formative years.
For thousands of years, elders have bemoaned the state of the youth and the effects of technology on social etiquette and culture. What makes this generation different is the ubiquitous embrace of fragmented, digital communication could be making irreversible changes to our culture and our humanity. What it means to be human, as it relates to communication, is changing. And not many people seem to put down their iPhones and think about what this means.
In fifty years, will it be anachronistic to sit down, tell stories face-to-face, and otherwise spend time engaged with another person in real time and place?
Because we began eating more processed foods 40-50 years ago during the industrialization of our food system, the United States now faces an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease. There have been massive consequences to thoughtlessly changing how we eat. Within the realm of communication, will we see similarly negative impacts on society as our gadgets change the nature of our communication?