Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Does Technology Help or Hinder our Relationships?

Facebook is stunting real-life social interactions! Technology is creating a generation of kids who can't have face-to-face conversations! Texting is ruining my child's life!

I'm sure you've heard similar statements from the media, parents and teachers. Perhaps you believe it as well. Is it true? Is the use of media technologies such as social networking sites and communication technologies like texting causing us to lose the skills of human interaction? We both came across some articles and news reports this week that relate to this topic.

The first, from NPR's Morning Edition, "And iPhone Makes Three: Marriage in the Digital Age," presents examples of couples and families attempting to re-establish family time amidst nearly constant communication from work and friends via mobile devices. It brings up some ideas to consider. Do we expect young people to put away devices at dinner, during family activities, bed time? Are we modeling the same behavior or does communication from work trump our interactions with family members? When is it appropriate to interrupt a face-to-face conversation to text or answer a call? An article in Slate last spring attempted to come up with one "golden" rule to address just this question. They called it the "bathroom rule" and it goes like this: if you are in a social situation in which you would pardon yourself to use the bathroom (versus simply slipping away to take care of your need) then you should do the same if you need to take a call or answer a text, carefully considering whether it is actually necessary to do so. It is a good guideline to follow. It also allows us to differentiate for ourselves and for young people the difference between texting while hanging out with a big group of friends and doing so during family dinners, or during a math class.

The second article vaguely addresses whether or not social media is actually doing harm to the social and emotional development of young people. Does social media, in fact, make people less social? Do they spend all their time on Facebook, while letting their real-life, interpersonal relationships languish? This short, little blog post tried to summarize the key findings in a study done by ExactTarget. "It is proven," the author says, "there is a correlation between increased social media usage and increased offline interaction – as users increase their Facebook and Twitter usage, they also tend to increase their social, in-person interactions." Intriguing. Let's dig deeper.

The study cited is sort of Mythbusters-meets-digital-age; how many of the things we've heard about social media are actually true? ExactTarget, the author of the study, has a vested interest in the outcome, as it is their job to help companies market themselves in this new digital age. However, like all things online, there are links to other resources here, clearly cited in their own study, to help give us the bigger picture while they attempt to dispel the myth of social isolation among Facebook and Twitter users.
"The Verdict: In short, individuals who are becoming more active on Facebook and Twitter are also interacting with friends in "real" (not virtual) settings more often, thereby busting the commonly-held myth that social media is making people less social. And while we agree that the seriousness of social media addiction--and how it can impact human interaction skill--is in fact a real concern, our data merely suggests that social media doesn't typically produce a decrease in in-person, human interactions."
So, how do we apply this information to real-life experiences with our students, colleagues, children and loved ones? If you're like the Dunphys from ABC's "Modern Family," you attempt to enforce a break from technology, and hilarity ensues. In reality, we must strive to find a balance that is right for us and the people we care about. Common sense tells us that too much of a good thing, no matter how amazing, miraculous and revolutionary it may be, is probably a bad idea. Learning to make good choices about when and how we interact with others is an important life skill and applying these life skills to the digital age is essential. Regardless of our individual expectations for our homes and our classrooms, we can all be good role models in the use of communication technology and social media for the young people (and, perhaps the older people) in our lives.

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