Digital communication has changed the world, and its effects have been both positive and negative. (This article will be limited to the upsides and downsides of personal communications, that is, electronic conversations by emailing and texting personal communications vs. face time and telephonic conversations.)
You and I can communicate personally with others all around the world, and we can do this at almost no cost. For example, I “converse” by email with friends and relatives in Thailand, Uganda, Finland, and Sweden. All of my messages are asynchronous, which is convenient due to time differences. (My cousins prefer I not phone them at 0300.) When we agree on a mutually convenient time, we can use Skype, which offers an approximation of face to face conversation.
We can send greeting cards and letters with personal messages to our lists of friends and relatives, and we can easily publish newsletters and blogs to a wide range of people interested in what we are thinking. (This “Better Conversations” newsletter goes to nearly 7,000 subscribers in 81 countries.)
We can research and learn what’s important to us for our personal and work lives. For example, I can prepare for a medical appointment by learning the latest treatments for a condition I’m experiencing, then talk about that information with my physician. A few decades ago, this was not possible.
In case of medical, automobile, and security emergencies, we can get immediate help. (Last month I foolishly locked my keys in my car, and within 20 minutes, my road service company was with me and unlocked my door. I was able to drive to an important appointment across town.)
Emailing and texting cannot replace face time or voice communication because it lacks nuances. Mothers complain to me that their daughters away at college refuse communicating by voice, saying instead “Mom, if you want to communicate with me, just text me.” However, feelings can be concealed when texting, feelings that a mom can hear in a daughter’s voice. Is the daughter worried, depressed, fearful? A mother could pick up those feelings from the voice.
As one woman wrote to an advice columnist, “I have a close friend who is going through a tough divorce. She often sends me long text messages about her horrific situation. I have asked her, on many occasions, to call me or come over to my place to talk because I find it difficult to be empathetic in a text reply. But she ignores me and continues sending long and repetitive text messages. What should I do?”
Some people are “always on” and are addicted to checking their email, sometimes 100 times a day. What are they hoping to find, or fearing they might miss? A note expressing how important they are in someone’s life? A message that they won the lottery? A perfect job offer?
In this past month, I did some research by observing patrons leaving my public library (whose rules prohibit using cell phones.) During 15 minutes a day for 5 days, I sat on an outside bench to watch folks exiting and heading to their cars. My unscientific findings? About 50% of the women and 30% of men checked their phones within moments of stepping outside. Still others came outside to check text messages or make calls, then went back into the library.
“Anything that you can become obsessed with, and you do so much that you don’t do the things you need to do with family, friends, school, job — that can be an addiction. And texting absolutely can qualify,” wrote clinical psychologist Dr. Dale Archer.
Living online is changing our brains
Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield writes that the brains of young people who spend their lives in front of a screen show under-functioning in the prefrontal cortex. And “digitally addicted children often manifest autistic behavior, including withdrawal . . .and irritability.”
In his 2011 book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr concluded that “the glimmering realm of inter ruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention that ‘deep reading’ engenders. (What happens when your brain has to prepare for an important exam, or you have to understand some critical information for your job written in dense text?)
In “The Information Diet: The Case for Conscious Consumption,” Clay Johnson warns against “information obesity” resulting from unconscious consumption. A reviewer commented that “Unconscious consumption squanders our precious attention.”
If adults don’t exercise your interpersonal skills, they get rusty. If adolescents don’t practice face time conversational skills, they don’t learn them.
With the advent of television in the mid-20th century, some people became addicted. Some families allowed the TV to be on and near the dinner table so they could watch instead of conversing. “Shh, I can’t hear the program.”
“Couch potatoes” were sedentary creatures who gained weight but not much useful knowledge. Steve Jobs commented that “the networks are really in business to give people what they want.” (Thus, soap operas, game shows, and sports.)
What to do?
Some thoughts Be as conscious of your information diet as you should be of your food diet. By all means, avoid “information obesity.”
Spend time in nature with no electronic connections. (One columnist wrote about his 30 days in the woods away from and phones or laptops. After almost a week of “withdrawal symptoms,” he began to feel his emotions and enjoy his senses. After one month away, he returned transformed.
Parents, set some rules. “No phones at the dinner table,” and “only X number of hours per day online.” Instead, “Go out and play.”
Adults, come to some agreements about using electronic devices when meeting or dining with friends or associates. (Some restaurants are willing to check your phones as well as your hats and coats.)
Follow the “platinum rule” when communicating with other humans. Message them as they, not you, prefer to be messaged. Therefore, daughter away at college, don’t text your mother. Talk to her!