Teenagers are losing their skills in conversations because of the role smart phones play in their lives. That’s, in a nutshell, the premise of the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. And boy, it’s a challenging read…
Author Sherry Turkle is a MIT Professor in the Social Studies of Science and Technology. She’s not a nobody, to put it mildly—she’s been researching the psychology of people’s relationships with technology for over thirty years. She kinda knows what she’s talking about, which makes the book so powerful to read.
Her view is that teens are rapidly losing basic skills in conversation, like how to present their case orally, or how to respectfully disagree with someone. Her research shows that teens and even millennials will go to great lengths to avoid personal conversations with someone, especially someone they don’t know very well. As much as possible is communicated through text, email, social media, etc.
But it’s more than that: she also argues that teens are losing other skills that are developed through personal conversations, like empathy. She cites some compelling resources that show teens’ level of empathy is declining.
One example stood out for me: a teen who had posted a truly nasty remark on the Facebook page of a kid whose dad had committed suicide (something along the lines that she hoped he’d do the same thing) did not understand how hurtful this comment was. To her, it was ‘just something on Facebook’. Somehow, the fact that online comments hurt just as much as ‘real’ comments, had not registered with her.
So what’s the cause then? It’s not as simple as teens spending too much time on their phones, which they do by the way. It’s also their parents spending too much time with their phones, thereby leaving their teenage kids isolated and bereft of the opportunity for conversation. Even in schools, much more learning happens through devices instead of face-to-face teaching and connection.
Teens crave human connection, even if they don’t show it, but their opportunities for deep personal connections are getting less and less. If they are with their friends, everyone is one their phone. Turkle shows how the depth of conversations in groups of teens or twenty-somethings has declined because people are constantly switching back and forth between their phones and the reality.
The solution of course is anything but simple. Turkle favors parents devoting their complete attention to their kids—an obvious one. But she also makes a powerful argument for creating device-free zones (for instance in schools or social situations—youth ministry is an obvious application). Teens who have gone to device-free summer camps for instance scored significantly higher on empathy after a few days of being there. And they themselves got a whole new appreciation for lige without a phone, as various interviews show.
Another advice is to let teens practice with conversations and literally teach them these important skills. Now, I’m using the word teens here, but the book has many examples from Millennials who need to be taught conversational skills as well, for instance in the work place. Turkle interviews multiple employers who shake their head at the missing conversational skills.
This all being said, the book is a bit alarmist and does offer only one side of the picture. Turkle doesn’t devote much attention to the plus sides and advantages of phones (or technology in general) and her methods are mostly based on sociological research (meaning interviews) and not statistical evidence and hard data. But man, did this book make me pause and think…
I really recommend Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age to anyone working with teens. It’s not the easiest read ever, as she’s a bit on the philosophical side, but it will certainly help you develop a fresh perspective on teens and technology.