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You are slouched in your chair, shoulders hunched, hands under the table, not seeing or hearing the chatter going on around you. Your focus is the cell phone in your hands, not the people at the table. You type something… then wait… then type again. Immersed in a digital world and a virtual conversation, the real conversation taking place in the real world doesn’t capture or hold your attention.
Sound familiar? The average teen sends or receives over 2000 text messages a month and spends nine hours a week on networking sites. Experts are worried that when in-person, face-to-face social interaction takes a back seat to twitchy, impersonal and detached communication, you miss out on the important subtleties that come with a verbal discussion.
Looking at a smiley face in an email isn’t the same as seeing an actual smile on an actual face. And lately many fear that this totally connected life, which includes email, blogging, IM and tweets, shortens attention spans, narrows world views, damages our ability to communicate and leads us down an unknown, dangerous path.
Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that teens admitted spending nearly an equal amount of time talking as they do texting each month, saying texting offers more options, including multitasking, speed, privacy and control. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that only 35% of teens surveyed listed personal human interaction as an everyday means of communication, making face to face communication the second least popular option for communicating among wired teens, coming in right above emailing.
Why is this a bad thing? So glad you asked. This phenomenon is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists who say it’s leading to anxiety, distraction in school, failing grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation. If those aren’t reasons enough to limit your technological conversations, here are some more negative effects of having conversations, one line at a time.
The blinking, flashing screens and brief amounts of text conditions our minds against quiet, concerted study. If something next to you is vibrating every couple of minutes, it makes it difficult to experience peace and quiet. The tremendous interest in knowing what’s going on, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop, leads to the pressure to answer immediately. With what researchers call the “continuous partial attention,” demanded by your cell phone, if you’re in the middle of a thought, forget it.
When you spend too much time not “reading” each other’s posture, hand gestures, eye movements, and facial expressions, healthy relationships suffer. Body language imparts feelings, attitudes, reactions and judgments in a completely different register than the written words alone. A lot of meaning is lost without the verbal and visual elements of a conversation. That is how we learn our language and how we best understand it.
When you spend all your time with your peers, there’s little room for learning about politics or reading Jane Austen. There’s no time to learn from the adult voices who have always ushered teens into the mature world, who have always taught the difference between right and wrong. With only your friends as your guides, growing up becomes a much more dangerous process.
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