Do texting, facebooking, and Instagram really signal the impending doom of deep and meaningful relationships? One of the most common fears expressed by adults about kids today is their overreliance on technology for communicating with others. Facebooking and texting in particular, have been identified as poor substitutes for one-on-one, face-to-face communication. Many adults fear that technology addiction is encroaching on their kids’ lives, and that because of it, their children will not be able to experience the depth and beauty of meaningful friendships and relationships.
I recently had an unexpected opportunity to observe the impact of our newest technologies on adult communication skills. This past summer I was fortunate enough to be on vacation in beautiful Block Island (if you haven’t been there, go) with my wife, her brother and sister-in-law, my niece, my wife’s elementary-school friend, and her friend’s husband. Amongst us, we have two physicians, two attorneys, a technology specialist, and a psychologist.
When I came downstairs for breakfast, the pediatrician, the psychiatrist, and the technologist were sitting at the table engaged in a lively conversation while all fiddling with their iPads. My 10 year old niece, Rachel, occasionally borrowed the iPad from her father for a minute to look at something, but the adults all seemed to be checking their emails, looking up things, but also talking about whatever interested them.
On occasion, they referenced something from the iPad to provide a piece of factual information about an area of discussion. Maybe it was because of the small size of the screen that they could readily look up from it as opposed to a larger television or computer screen, or maybe it was because they could easily put it down and make eye contact with each other, but at no point did the electronics seem to interfere with a lively and engaged discussion.
These observations are not to say that playing with your iPad while sitting with others cannot absorb or isolate you in a social situation, just as reading a book, drawing a picture, or following a recipe might take you from communicating with others. It is also important to recognize that a kitchen table of adults was actually communicating via voice and eye contact, rather than through the technologies, but that technologies were clearly a part of the interactions. Perhaps this was just a healthy integration of technology into our family life.
This experience brings to mind our concept of “whole play,” in which digital play is mixed with other activities. In this case, our involvement with the technology was also mixed with an engaged conversation, or social play, with others. When used mindfully, technologies such as texting, googling, and social networking all have the potential for enhancing our relationships, not diminishing our connectedness. Technology makes it easy to share our experiences with others via text, pictures and video. It also lets us share our interests and favorite places with others. But still, setting some basic etiquette rules for public use of digital media may be needed to ensure kids and adults alike don’t fall into a pattern of isolated usage. Technology isn’t going away, so it would be wise for all of us to start finding ways healthy ways to integrate it into our daily and social lives.