Digital isolation

Today we have a laundry list of ways to connect and communicate through the latest and greatest technological gadgets. We have the new iPhone 4S. We can text, tweet, “friend” people on Facebook and, yes, even do something that is almost getting to seem archaic: email.  

Why is it then, with all of the communication advances available, that we seem to be on the losing end when it comes to relating to people in person, one on one, something that used to be referred to as interpersonal communication? We have more ways to connect than ever before but we can’t seem to say anything without the assistance of electronics. 

The issue was raised by a concerned and very astute parent who attended one of my recent media awareness presentations. During the discussion portion, this young mom explained how she heartbroken because her tween daughter no longer wanted to attend parish youth group meetings. She explained that her daughter was apparently the only one in the youth group that did not own an iPhone. Not just an average cell phone by the way, but an iPhone. But apparently it wasn’t only her daughter’s lack of a cell phone that made her feel like a fish out of water among her peers. The girl told her mom that every time she tried to engage in conversation with the others, they would respond with blank stares and then quickly get back to texting or playing a game on their phone. This girl was never able to enjoy the youth group programs once they got under way because the meet-and-greet or social times before and after were just so uncomfortable for her. Her daughter’s ability to engage in an actual conversation was foreign to the other students; they simply didn’t know how to respond, so they went back to doing what was most comfortable for them. 

The technological discoveries of the 21st century no doubt provide us with great advances. We have the ability to witness and evangelize like never before and, let’s face it, when you come right down to it, in many ways these gadgets do make life, well, just a lot easier. As some researchers point out, when it comes to impressionable young people, it really is a mixed bag. In August, psychology professor Larry Rosen told the annual convention of the American Psychological Association that young people who spend too much time with their technology, namely social media, show more signs of antisocial behaviors, psychological disorders, and are more prone to depression and anxiety. Rosen’s talk — “Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids” — did include some positive notes about social media usage. Kids with social media skills tend to show more empathy to their online friends. Social media is also providing educators with unique ways to engage students. Overall, though, when it came to looking at the impact of social networking on youth, the negatives definitely outweighed the positives on Rosen’s list. 

I did my best to reassure the mom I met in my travels recently that she was doing the right thing by not giving into her daughter’s desire for an iPhone and, most importantly, by talking to her daughter about her concerns and media usage. She is doing what the experts, including Rosen, say parents should do: Talk to their kids about the impact of media on their lives and relationships. I also encouraged her to explain to her daughter that the problem is with the other young people. Unfortunately, this mom is a rarity. And I fear, if more of us don’t do what this mom is doing, that simple conversation or interpersonal communication will soon be considered too old-fashioned or passé. 

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.