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Face time vs. screen time: The technological impact on communication

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 4:45 a.m. MDT

While there are more ways than ever to communicate, some are concerned about the break-neck speed our language is evolving, but some scientists are using technology to help us communicate better.

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Marc Brackett didn’t become the director of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence out of curiosity about emotions.

He got there after being bullied in school, followed by years of therapy.

"My primary influence was being a kid who was bullied and didn’t know how to deal with it effectively," Brackett said. "I realized that if I had the skills to understand and manage my feelings, I could overcome anything."

Today, Brackett uses a specially developed app and classroom curriculum to help people use technology to better articulate, understand and control their emotions.

That ability to understand and catalogue emotions is more important than ever since the advent of the Internet, social media and texting. When Brackett was growing up, there was no Facebook for venting, no emoji catalog to illustrate his feelings, no online community to listen. But in an age with more methods than ever to talk online, researchers are now studying whether this is changing the way people communicate.

They're finding that people communicate more often with family and friends because of technology, but the quality of that communication may be weaker. Kids who spend more time engaging with a screen than with other kids or adults can struggle to understand emotion, create strong relationships or become more dependent on others.

"These kids aren't connecting emotionally," says parenting expert and pediatric nurse Denise Daniels. "Emails, texts — these lack the emotive qualities of face-to-face interaction."

"What’s the balance? If all you’re doing is using Facebook, you're not getting the interpersonal connection you need," Brackett said. "Kids want to be hugged and touched, they don’t want to be texted. There's a basic need to fill that social bond."

Does a friendly emoji replace a hug or even a phone call? Probably not, psychologist Jim Taylor says, and the divide is becoming very real within families.

"Kids are spending so much time communicating through technology that they’re not developing basic communication skills that humans have used since forever," Taylor said. "Communication is not just about words."

Smile vs. :)

For Dr. Kate Roberts, a Boston-based school psychologist, people who increasingly rely on technology to communicate are paying a heavy price society is just beginning to understand.

"Families text rather than have conversations. We're living in a culture of sound bites, and that is not developing our verbal skills or our emotional intelligence," Roberts said. "We're down on the interaction time. Right now, at Boston College, there's a course on how to ask a person out on a date. It's like we've lost the skill of courtship and the ability to make that connection."

For adults, Roberts believes reliance on the quick text or Facebook message is mostly about saving time. She calls them "digital shortcuts." But for children, the overuse of technology to communicate affects the brain, Daniels says.

"Technology can be a big hindrance on interpersonal relationships," Daniels said. "For all its benefits, technology can completely rewrite a child's brain pathways in a very different way than how they would normally develop."

Daniels is talking about neurotransmitters — chemicals in the brain that relay information between nerves. A developing child is born with pathways that expand based on stimulation like a parent's voice, music, touch and eventually play. They also help children file and organize endless pieces of information gathered as they age. But for children who spend too much time interacting through a screen, something happens, Daniels says.

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