Texting and Its Impact on Face-to-Face
Communication in Adolescents

Speaker: Sherry Turkle, PhD

Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Founder and Director, Initiative on Technology and Self Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In my experience, students’ declining use of office hours reflects an important aspect of their approach to education. They prefer to communicate through text messages and emails because those are correctable, perfectible media through which they can imagine that they can present the best versions of themselves and hope to receive similarly perfected communications back.  My students make it clear that they do not appreciate the value of beginning with imperfection on the a path to improvement. There is something else they don’t appreciate: the investment that two people make in each other when they are in an “unedited” conversation. In all of this, these students participate in a shift toward transactional communication. And this creates a problem: transactional communication cannot do the work that relational conversation can do. I see it as part of a move from conversation to mere connection.

Two anecdotes illustrate the shift from conversation to connection.  In the first, a student confides that conversation strains her attention because it takes seven minutes to sort through the other person’s content and style and determine if more talking is worthwhile.  During this time she finds that boredom sets in.  For that reason, the student uses conversational lulls to check her phone.  This process of external reference, rather than internal reflection, is a “habit of mind fostered by the velocity of always-on connections that are inhibiting the cultivation of [students’] interior resources”.  Phones reward us.  They always hear us, focus our attention, banish boredom, and indulge our desires.  In the second anecdote, a student says that she is relieved that she has nothing controversial to say.  If she did, she’d feel compelled to share it online and that would be bad because it would not be private there. And it would be archived forever.  This illustrates one way in which online culture may chill the development of opinions, particularly of opinions out of the mainstream.

Graphic Illustration - Texting and Its Impact on Face-to-Face Communication in Adolescence

Graphic Illustration – Texting and Its Impact on Face-to-Face Communication in Adolescence

The promise of perfection and the idea that boredom is dead are problems.  Avoiding boredom means avoiding significant moments when our imaginations call to us.  Avoiding imperfection deprives us of the experience of presence, vulnerability, spontaneity, growth, and imagination.  Avoiding or suppressing controversial thoughts, just to avoid managing the need to deal with criticism, stymies intellectual growth and authentic public engagement.
In all this, I do not betray a bias against technology.  Rather, it reflects a strong commitment to the value of conversation. Conversation is good for children, parents, teachers, and caretakers because it nurtures minds and relationships and promotes the development of empathy. These days, we face an empathy crisis, and conversation, one might say, is the “talking cure.”

This crisis is analogous to a past generation’s “Silent Spring”, in the sense that it is part of a technological assault on our environment. This time, one of the first costs is to our capacity for empathy.  In the last 20 years, the markers for empathy among college students have declined 40%, with most of that decline taking place in the past 10 years, which links the decline to the presence of devices.  The mindful use of technology can help.  Adolescents are resilient.  Even five days without electronic devices has been found to help adolescents rebuild their capacity for empathy. Why? They talk to each other.  In addition to promoting conversation, though, we also must promote young people’s capacity for solitude. “In solitude, we find ourselves.  We prepare ourselves to come to conversations with something that is authentic, that is ours.” This means that we come to conversation ready to hear who people are, not simply what we need them to be. The capacity for solitude and the capacity for relationship are shared virtues. They are joined by people coming together in conversation.