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How Technology is Changing How We Relate

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

I was talking with a young person the other day who was telling me about a problem she was having with one of her friends. After listening to her story I told her it sounded like this could be resolved pretty easily if she just called up her friend and apologized for one particular thing that happened. Her immediate response was, “I’m not going to call her. I might text her. But, why would I call her?”

I responded by saying that your apology might mean more to her if she heard you say it in your own voice. My young friend’s response: “Nobody calls on the phone anymore. Everything is done by text.”

The interactive landscape we are living in seems to be shifting. Here’s another example. I was teaching a college course on Interpersonal Communication where most of students were between 20 and 30 years of age. The topic of modern technology and communication came up and I posed this question to the class: “What effect, if any, does virtual communication (texting, email, social media, etc.) have on our ability to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with each other?” I suspected, based on their age, that they would lean favorably toward the positive outcomes of technology. But I was shocked by how much. Out of 20 students, 19 strongly believed that virtual technology significantly enhanced their ability to build and sustain meaningful relationships. Only one student thought that it might be detrimental. I then pushed for more clarity: “But how can virtual communication enhance meaningful interaction when you completely omit the facial expressions, tone and inflection of voice, eye contact, and the immediacy of presence from the interaction?” Their collective response said it all. “That’s not what’s most important. Virtual communication is faster, more convenient, saves time and allows you respond if and when you want.”

The foundation is shifting

What I’m suggesting in these examples is that how we think about relationships is changing. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say technology and how we choose to use it is changing our relationships. In other words, if relationships are primarily about “connection” then we should be seeing greater satisfaction across all types of relationships. But, we aren’t. I believe that despite all of this “connection” many people are desperately lonely. We lapse into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. If that were the case we’d have decreasing rates of depression instead of increasing. Currently 1 in every 10 people in the U.S. struggles with depression and that number increases by about 20% every year. More people are “connecting” through social media and other forms of virtual communication than ever before but it’s not satisfying the deep need to be known and talk deeply, listen carefully, empathize, and feel care mutually exchanged.

Developmental parallel

An infant starts out his or her life needing attuned caring by parents and if that child consistently gets that attentive, nurturing and loving care for a long time, that child will grow up intuitively knowing how to build and maintain meaningful relationships. But, if that child gets a piecemeal version of care that is inconsistent, abbreviated and confusing, similar to the piecemeal communication (brief texts, abbreviated words, 140 characters or less) that passes as modern-day “connection,” that child will grow up guessing how they are supposed to relate well to others.

I fear that many young people of today will grow up thinking that “connection” is going to be an adequate base to build relationships that lead to a committed marriage and a sacrificial devotion to nurturing their own children.

Don’t throw your phone away

I am not suggesting we get rid of our gadgets. I have and use these technologies too. I’m merely raising the question to encourage you to stop texting long enough to think about how relationships really work best. A text is a great way to convey a brief thought or say “I’m thinking of you” or “I love you.” But the relationships that are important to you need more than the exchange of periodic sentence fragments in order to grow. You need to be able to reach out and touch that person, respond to the nuances in body language and voice and experience the immediacy of the back and forth conversation. If we uncritically adopt wave after wave of technology without asking how it is changing us and how we communicate with each other, we risk becoming less human in the process. Over time, we can only guess what that might mean.

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