The Impact of Technology on Conversations and Ourselves

The Impact of Technology on Conversations and Ourselves

How is technology affecting our conversations?  Perhaps more important, how is it affecting how we develop as people?  What makes this important, anyway?

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, has devoted many years to studying these questions, published in a  book:  Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age. A recent New York Times op-ed piece summarizes some her work: (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/stop-googling-lets-talk.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone).

College students nowadays claim they can type on a phone keyboard and maintain eye contact at the same time, without their split attention being detected.  Many of them note they learned this skill when in middle school, so they could text in class without being punished by their teacher.  Socially it allows them to be with a friend and “elsewhere” at the same time, or so they describe it.  A Pew Study in 2015 found that 89% of all respondents had used their cell phones during the last social event they had attended, even though 82% felt that it “hurt the conversation.”

Dr. Turkle wonders, when so many people prefer to text rather than talk, what is the impact on face-to-face conversations?  How many people do all of us know (including ourselves), who prefer to text a message than make a phone call to talk to another person, much less even just leave a voicemail?

One college student being interviewed described a “rule of three” for small group conversations.  When chatting over dinner with 5 or 6 friends, she would check to be sure that three people have their heads up and are attending to the conversation before she would check her own phone.  The end result is inevitably a more lightweight conversation in which people rotate in and out of the discussion, rather than stay more engaged for a more sustained period that would allow an interaction of more depth.

Studies have shown that the mere presence of a cell phone in our field of vision impacts a conversation.  Topics of discussion stay in areas where interruption is less of a problem;  we invest less of ourselves in the interaction.  The depth of connection people feel is reduced.  This is true even if the phone remains silent during the whole time. Perhaps we anticipate that an interruption will occur, so we keep the topics lighter and less engaging.  Less often do we develop conversations that are open-ended, more spontaneous, in which we play with ideas, and are more fully present and vulnerable.  What makes this important?

Such richer conversations are the laboratory for us to learn about basic communication skills:  eye contact, being aware of our own and others’ body language and tone of voice, providing and receiving comfort by talking, or being able to challenge someone respectfully.  Even without texting, the mere presence of a device reduces intimacy, empathy, and human connection.  Moreover, it is in these connections that each of us also develops our identity and sense of self.  Empirical studies over thirty years, including 72 studies, have shown a 40% decline in empathy among college students, most of this  since the year 2000.

Dr. Alan M. Solomon is a clinical psychologist, member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, located in Torrance.  He can be reached at (310) 539-2772, or dralanms@gmail.com.

Copyright 2018 by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.