A group of six tweens sits together in a restaurant. Every one of them is staring at a device in their hand that is their doorway into a vast, largely unregulated virtual world. There, they can check their social media feeds, shop, watch funny videos, review their homework assignments and engage and communicate with others locally and around the world.
They are completely comfortable navigating this territory. But while they are adept in engaging in that virtual world, how well are they doing at engaging in the real world? Those tweens weren’t talking to each other. They were laughing at what was on their device rather than jokes they were making together. They weren’t paying attention to see if someone in their group might have been having a bad day or struggling with a problem. Instead, they were each engrossed in their own virtual world.
I know that’s just one slice of their day, and I believe our devices have value. But as I watch people of all ages spending more time with their head in their devices as they sit together, walk down the street and even as they drive, I am concerned not only about our constantly wrenched necks and hunched over backs but about how our devices are affecting our ability to communicate. We need to think about how they are affecting our interest in being together and engaging with others as well as how we spend our time.
I’ve been hearing more about this issue as I talk to teachers and principals across the country. They tell me that students are relying on devices more and spending less time interacting with their peers. While they use the phones to communicate with their friends, they are missing out on opportunities to make those very important real-world, real-time connections.
Even teens are concerned about their own phone use. According to a Pew Research study, 60 percent of teens say that spending too much time on the phone is a “major” problem facing their group. More than half say they spend too much time on their cell phones.
Perhaps this isn’t much different than when televisions gained widespread use reducing how much time people spent on outside social activities. Or maybe it’s akin to the era during which hard-wired phones became so widely used that parents fretted about how much time teens spent in their rooms talking with friends.
We shouldn’t resist change just because we object to new ways of doing things or new technologies. We should absolutely embrace the opportunities that are opened. We now have tremendous resources available in just a few clicks. And certainly, it is easier to stay in touch with people across vast distances. At the same time, we need to acknowledge and address the potential pitfalls like not developing adequate social and conversational skills.
We know the devices aren’t going away so let’s talk about how we’re going to manage them and how we’re going to maintain the best of human interaction in both the real and virtual worlds.
Here are some suggestions to maintain real-world interactions in the digital age:
Talk with children about how they use their phones. Take time to hear their views and let them know the challenges as you see them. Encourage them to think about how devices affect them.
Be a role model and take the time to converse with children. Regardless of what you talk about, show children how to have conversations. Encourage them to communicate face-to-face so they can learn and practice important skills like making eye contact, reading body language, and empathizing.
Teach children about when to use which form of communication. Maybe it should go without saying that texting is not the best option for emotionally charged conversations, and yet it seems people must be reminded. It is too easy to misinterpret written conversation. It’s so much better to pick up the phone or meet in person to discuss anything that might be misunderstood.
Encourage phone breaks. Set up a basket for everyone to put their devices in when they’re together. Set aside time when the whole family will refrain from using devices. Talk with children and encourage them to choose when and how they will set aside their devices.
Encourage children to be mindful about how they respond to people on the phone. The interactions they have through social media are as real and as important as those they have in person. And, they have a choice in how they respond. Remind them to think about their options and how their actions and responses will affect others.