4666140801_393890e5fd_mWhen you get involved in online communication, it’s very easy to quickly reach a point where you are communicating with people all of the time. Multitasking has become the new “must” skill, and much of our multitasking talents are used for entertaining chatter while we are working, doing homework, cooking, or even driving. Despite this 24/7 communication online or via text messages, however, our willingness to relate to real people in the moment, face-to-face, is dwindling. All of the signs point to it.

This was first brought to my attention by Ellen Bremen (aka @ChattyProf). Ellen is a communications professor, and as such she has undertaken a seemingly simple experiment. She invites her students to “fast” from social media and texting for three days. The only way you’re allowed to communicate with people is in-person or via the phone. Old-fashioned ways. Ellen’s students, who range in ages, almost universally struggled with this task. In this intriguing #HecklersHangout chat I co-hosted with Brian Vickery, Ellen talks about students who told her, “When I met my friends in person, we couldn’t really talk. We didn’t know how to relate.” Students accused her of making them doubt how real their friendships were. Many, unable to coordinate outings, ended up feeling more isolated and more alone than they ever had before.

This is not just mythology, but we don’t talk about these new complexities outright. What I do notice is that when friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time get together, they post pictures of their meal to Facebook. They post pictures of themselves to Instagram. And as people comment, they continue to reply. I often picture a table with two friends (or more) who were looking forward to seeing each other…maybe, sort of…sitting with their heads down, fingers tapping away. Maybe they talk about a comment their tagged picture got. They are bringing their online means of connection into the “real” world, but they are not really engaging with each other in meaningful ways. We see this all the time, but we don’t comment on why this happens. No one ever says, “Don’t you want to put your phone away and talk to that friend?”

I wonder if I’m the only one thinking it.

Even more disturbing is a trend that Sherry Turkle points out in Alone Together. Numerous children in her study report that as they get into their parents’ cars after school, their parent may not even look up from the phone, or the parent might give that now common wave. “Give me just a minute, I’m finishing this.” One teen Turkle quotes notes that she waits for the time that her mom picks her up and says, “Hi, how was your day.” At the same time, the teen notes that her mom will never change. The phone will never leave. Indeed, Turkle even tells the account of a man who becomes infatuated with his Second Life wife. He texts to her, essentially committing a new kind of adultery, while pushing his child on a swing with the other hand.

Children, according to Turkle, do not ignore these moments when they want to engage with their parents but are placed as a second priority to their parents’ emails, social media, or texting. One son notes that he and his dad used to watch football games together and it was a great time to bond. Now the dad is buried in his phone and they barely talk to each other. This leaves children, in real life, feeling abandoned. It opens them up to the idea that maybe real-life connections aren’t as reliable, or as predictable, as online connections. If we are talking about how we turn each other into robots in the world of social media, we can see how we are creating a generation of potentially very confused young people.

We all are tied to our phones because of work these days. We all are getting more email than we can handle. But we need to take a moment to weigh a 20-minute lag in responding to an email versus losing a connection with people we love. Is that email or text really worth that? This may seem dramatic, but I do not believe it’s overstating the fact. Over time, we are sending the message, “This is more important than my time with you.”

We don’t want to do that. Do we?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ubiqua/4666140801/ via Creative Commons