If you think that you should expect a lot of noise when you gather a group of tweens or teens, think again. Chances are they will be having a conversation, just not with one another. Texting has become the preferred way of communicating amongst the younger set, enabled by apps, smartphones, tablets, and widespread access to technology. Sometimes I even have to step in during my kids’ playdates and have them interact without any devices.
I’m all for embracing change and modern technology … but I’m worried. As the mom of 9 and 12-year-olds, not a day goes by in which I don’t notice how much quieter my kids are than I was at their age. When my husband reviews our monthly cell-phone bills, it’s not the monthly talk limits that will catch his attention but rather the need for more text messages and data. Paradoxically, my kids don’t use their mobile phones to speak to their friends, but rather messaging apps and group chats.
It’s not all bad, since mobile devices do allow for more communication overall (my kids are in constant contact with my family in Chile) but I see that texting has had a negative effect. What will happen when our children grow up and need to make a presentation in front of large groups or have to interview somebody for a class assignment? How will they react and answer once they are being interviewed for a job or college?
Communication is a skill and we need practice, especially if our children are having fewer conversations. But there are more and more signs every day that this is one area of life where technology has not helped us:
1. They’re not making eye contact.
Our kids are the “heads down” generation, used to keeping their eyes glued to their screens unless somebody dares to interrupt them or sets (and enforces) limits. I keep reminding my kids to look at me when I’m speaking with them. Eye contact creates an emotional connection but it’s been dwindling not only among teens, but also in adults. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that adults make eye contact 30-60% of the time, while experts recommend it should be 60-70%.
2. They have poor handwriting.
Writing in abbreviations becomes a habit and teachers, both in school and college, see papers with acronyms or misspelled words. If kids don’t understand that they need to be careful when writing a formal paper, they will pay the consequences come report card time. Some experts don’t see anything wrong per se with the slang used in texting, as long as they aren’t used in the classroom. I agree that context is everything, but it gets too easy to use the same words over and over, or to think that actually spelling out a word is a waste of time.
3. They have difficult connecting and engaging in real conversations.
“Real” as in face-to-face, using spoken words, as opposed to having a fragmented exchange of words via instant messaging, with no body-language cues, no nuances in the tone of voice, or emotional reactions. Using an emoticon comes nowhere close to expressing joy, sadness, frustration, or anger. Children need to experience conversations that occur in real time — face-to-face, not virtually — where they can see and even touch the person with them. That’s why we try to have as many meals together as we can, or I try to do things where my kids are relaxed and don’t feel I am interrogating them. I try to listen as much as I can but when they are too quiet and seem more interested in their phone than in their family, I take away their devices so they won’t get distracted.
So what can we do as parents? First, realize these problems not only affect our children but also our own relationships. We need to lead by example by having real conversations with our kids, without succumbing to the temptation to answer the latest message or notification that lights up our screens. Also, we need to set limits and make sure to provide ample chances for our children to interact without any devices. As I’ve said before, if everything else fails, just disconnect the WiFi. It might actually force the kids to realize how much fun it can be to talk, laugh, and joke using their voices and not just their fingers.More On