For most of human history, conversations took place face-to-face. Then, in the late 19th century, with the invention of the telephone, technology allowed us to converse with others across great distances. But, these conversations still occurred in real time, and allowed us to hear nuances of speech and interpret feelings, even without the benefit of facial expressions.
Fast forward to the 21st century… Today, conversations are more likely to occur via digital channels – social media, texting, and email – than in person. How are these digital “conversations” changing the way we communicate? What do we gain? What do we lose?
With the invention of the iPhone, a whole new way of engaging in conversation emerged. Within 5 years of their introduction, smartphones led to an evolution in communication with texting taking over talking. In fact, texting has become the #1 way we use our smartphones. (1)
Collectively, Americans send approximately 26 billion text messages daily. Globally, the average iPhone user sends and receives 53 text messages a day. Among Americans under age 50, texting is the most frequently used way to communicate. The average high school senior spends 2 hours a day texting. (1)
What are your texting habits? Are you “average”?
Texting is quickly displacing in-person and on-the-phone talking as the preferred mode of interpersonal communication. Even when the opportunity for in-person conversation exists, more and more people choose texting instead. Why?
Texting is convenient; we can do it almost anywhere and anytime.
Texting can be unobtrusive if notifications are silenced.
Texts are read more promptly and responded to more consistently than emails or phone messages.
Texting is perceived as more personal than email.
Text messages can be edited and emotions toned down, compared to the potential for arguments during real-time conversations. Therefore, digital conversations are perceived as more controlled and less vulnerable to conflict.
Texting is considered an effective adjunct to phone and email, such as alerting someone to an upcoming call or a recently sent email.
Text messages create a written record.
With such a long list of benefits, are there any downsides? Yes, and they are significant.
First, texting and other forms of digital conversation create a state of constant distraction. The fast pace and instant gratification of digital media and text messaging lead us to crave it 24/7. To be without one’s phone causes “disconnection anxiety.” The average American adult checks their phone every 6½ minutes. More and more people never “unplug” from their phones – driving, exercising, eating, working, and even sleeping – while constantly checking for incoming messages. (2)
Attention and concentration suffer as a result. We cannot be constantly switching our focus from our phone to the task at hand. The myth of “multi-tasking” is just that – a myth. To be productive requires focused concentration on only one task. (2) We’ve known this for a long time, but ignore it to our peril:
“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day,
if you do but one thing at once,
but there is not time enough in the year,
if you will do two things at a time.”
~ Lord Chesterfield, 1694-1773
Constant digital stimulation also causes us to become less capable of doing “nothing.” The act of doing nothing has unrecognized potential, but is viewed as laziness or a problem to overcome. The ability to be at peace with “boredom” is a skill that helps us wait patiently, think creatively, problem solve, use our imaginations, and reflect. Too often, as soon as boredom strikes, out comes the phone.
Being able to embrace solitude, without constant digital stimuli, allows us to become comfortable with ourselves. We are able to form a stable sense of self. And those who understand themselves are better equipped to understand others. (2)
Possibly the most detrimental effect of replacing face-to-face conversations with digital ones is the loss of interpersonal interaction. Talking face-to-face requires parties to take turns, listen, and tune-in to body language and feelings. Human interaction is essential for learning how to recognize and process emotions and develop empathy. In-person conversations teach us how to get along with one another. Talking face-to-face enhances trust and builds relationships. The very vulnerability we avoid by texting is good for us. (2)
The impact of this new form of communication on adults is slight compared to the real-life “experiment” we now impose on a generation of children growing up with phones, distracted adults, and less human interaction. When children grow up interacting digitally instead of face-to-face what is the result? Can we take corrective measures? Technology is here to stay. How can we make it work for us and not against us? Stay tuned for a future blog on coming face-to-face for conversation again.
“Face-to-face conversation is the most human – and humanizing – thing we do.
Fully present to one another, we learn to listen.
It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy.
It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”
~ Sherry Turkle, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”
Burke K. 107 Texting Statistics That Answer All Your Questions. Text Request. May 24, 2016. Updated January 24, 2019. https://www.textrequest.com/blog/texting-statistics-answer-questions/ Accessed June 20, 2019.
Turkle S. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York, New York: Penguin Books; 2015.
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