Is Technology Ruining Our Conversations?

Last week, Sherry Turkle wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about how social media and technology is adversely affecting our ability to properly communicate with each other, and the implications it can have on children’s social development. She found that children and young adolescents are no longer developing a sense of empathy. When we have conversations on our phones instead of face-to-face, we miss important facets of the conversation, such as body language. She found that many children are not registering emotional responses properly, and as a result they lack empathy. She also wrote about college students and referred to a “rule of three” in which at least three people in a group need to be paying attention to the person speaking before you can look at your phone. Her article got me thinking about how we actually communicate, and is social media really helping our conversations?

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The purpose of social media is supposed to be making connections and improving our channels of communication, but instead it seems to be negatively affectively our communication skills rather than enhancing them. More and more I find that we continually rely on social media and technology to communicate, while traditional forms like talking are becoming obsolete. One of my roommates likes to call people to ask simple questions like “What are you getting for dinner?” The first time this happened, I remember being completely confused. I think I specifically asked her why she was calling me when she could have just texted me. For some reason, receiving a phone call felt weird to me. I was sure it had to be something really important for her to take the time to call me. We seem to be moving to a place where less words is what’s desirable, and communication is fine as long as it is convenient for us.

Social media and texting invites the idea of censoring our thoughts; we limit what we have to say almost to avoid the possibility of a real conversation. A tweet is only 140 characters, and if someone texts you something longer than a sentence it becomes an essay that we don’t want to read. We start writing a text to someone, and then we delete it because we’re not sure that’s exactly what we want to say. But, this doesn’t happen in real conversations. The beauty of a real conversation is where it can lead you; at the end of a great conversation you often find yourself miles from the place that you started at. When you eliminate this aspect of communication, you end up with a lot of smaller conversations that aren’t entirely meaningful.

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Real conversations take time and effort that we’re not willing to give. When conversations are light we don’t need to give our full attention. Light conversation allows us to multi-task. We can’t just sit down and talk anymore; we bring our phones with us so we can check our email, and social media, all so we can have these light conversations with as many people as possible. We prioritize the person who just texted us, who is presumably far away, over the person sitting in the room with us. You can do everything on your phone now. Why ask someone else a question when you can ask social media? Social media and technology allows us to pick our level of engagement so that it’s convenient for us. Why read all the comments and opinions when you can just read the ones that agree with you? Real conversation doesn’t allow you to censor yourself or others. You start talking and see where you end up.

6 comments

  1. Hi Arielle – you have done a great job of putting words to a problem that I think most of us have started to acknowledge now. It’s definitely concerning that there are statistics supporting that social development is being stalled by social media. One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is just being able to interact with a perfect stranger on a given day. We choose to plunge our heads into our phones rather than potentially meet a new person right in front of us or even just say “hi.” That said, I think the most important insight you draw upon is that we all have a choice. In moderation, social media can be a great tool, so we have to be able to pull ourselves away from it every now and then. Over time, I feel as though we will see a better balance.

  2. This is a great topic, Arielle. The problem is, while we realize that social media is not a replacement for face-to-face interactions, it is becoming the case. It is getting to point where people are not interested in having or don’t know how to have real conversations. This may be due to the fact that communicating online is easier and that everyone is “busy,” when the truth may be that we that we are distracted by all of these social media and technological tools. This also applies to professors, who have fewer students coming to office hours than the past, since it is often easier and more efficient to communicate through email. Even with in person communications, people aren’t entirely present, which can result in superficial conversations, rather than deeper, intellectual discussions. It is unfortunate, because we can learn so much from interactions with others. This lack of human connection and empathy is a big problem, with many not aware of how their actions affect others.

  3. We’ll be watching Turkle’s TED talk later in the semester. I’m a bit conflicted here. I don’t think SM is ever a replacement for genuine face-to-face conversation, but I do think much communication doesn’t need F2F to be effective. That’s one reason we don’t use SM in class, is because why waste valuable class time. In #IS6621, however, my experience is that the online interactions actually enhance the F2F interactions when we do get together in class.

  4. I can certainly see many of these points being true for young children. These days, it seems like kids are getting iPhone’s before they graduate elementary school which makes things even worse. People have a tendency to communicate differently over technology than they do in real life, which I think hurts their ability to socialize. Another point I could relate to: the phone call. Every time my phone starts buzzing for a phone call, I find myself surprised and maybe even a little worried (what is the emergency?!). It seems like I am always just expecting people to communicate through iMessage and the concept of a phone call has become foreign to me.

  5. I’m what you would call a “horrible texter.” I’ll respond if it’s urgent, chime in occasionally in group chats, and check in once and a while to schedule lunch or share something funny, but I’ve been prone to wait hours (easily) and sometimes days to respond. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s because I’ve make a conscious effort to be more engaged in the world (and people) around me that it’s become my nature to delegate social media to a secondary position in my life. I am tuned in– just not with the same immediacy

    Not saying I’m always successful– often to combat boredom I’ll endlessly scroll through Instagram to amuse myself and keep up-to-date with my friends lives and potentially miss the opportunity to engage with new people.

    I think we all need to find a balance between prioritizing face-to-face and digital worlds, because social media is also social– there is a person on the other side of the screen. Personally, my relationships with people are primarily face-to-face and social media is supplemental and great for maintaining dialogue. But increasingly there are relationships and friendships that are almost exclusively formed and maintained online (i.e. online dating or online communities). I guess which one is “better” is up for discussion or up to the individual to decide.

  6. My phone recently broke, and I had to wait a two days before my insurance company sent a new replacement (definitely worth the $5/month if you don’t already have it…). Admittedly, I felt naked and helpless without it. Driving to New York for an interview, I had to pay attention to the road signage instead of my GPS navigation. Waiting for a guest speaker in my class last night, I tried to make small talk with classmates around me (as most of them stared back at their phones). Great post, and an interesting outlook on our dependence within social media and virtual communication.

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