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Study of tech habits shows importance of face-to-face talks

Maybe we didn't need another study to remind us that the explosion of digital devices and the content that they put at our fingertips have changed the way we relate to each other.

And in fairness, the Stanford University researchers who recently published work on the way multitasking and media immersion affects tween girls weren't trying to reach conclusions about the way we should live our lives. That's the role of philosophers and preachers, not academics and statisticians.

But the study by communication professor Clifford Nass and education and learning science professor Roy Pea has me thinking that we might all learn something from their work.

Their big conclusions? Eight- to 12-year-old girls who spend a lot of time multitasking and using media, including television and social networking, tend to report that they feel socially inferior and out of the ordinary. The researchers could not go so far as to say heavy media use and multitasking caused girls to feel bad about their social lives. In fact, it could be that socially awkward tweens turn to technology and media for comfort.

But the research also found that the more time girls spend in face-to-face conversations, the more likely they are to feel happy with themselves and their social standing. In fact, it appears, face-to-face conversations can inoculate heavy media users from feeling like social flops.

Nass and Pea acknowledge that the study is short on cause-and-effect answers, but they say, the work raises red flags and suggests that comprehensive studies of media use, face-to-face conversations and social development would be worthwhile.

"When you do find these robust correlations," Pea said, "it certainly suggests, 'Boy, this is a hot place to look.' And it also raises some alarms."

It raises alarms about tweens, sure. But what about the rest of us? Think about it: How often are you emailing the boss with your smartphone while sharing dinner with your family, and, oh, keeping an eye on Google alerts for that piece of news that could change your life, or the life of your company?

And you wonder where the kids get it?

"I think there is something profound about this press for speed and responsiveness over engagement," Nass said.

For tween girls, the danger could be that a heavy technology diet is preventing them from learning how to meaningfully interact with other people, a deficiency that could last a lifetime. Nass said kids learn how to pay attention by talking face-to-face. There are cues in our faces, our posture, our tone, that can be easily missed online or while talking and texting at the same time.

"Our bodies and faces, our voices, are exquisitely tuned to manifesting emotion," he said. "And our brains are exquisitely tuned to detecting those emotions."

For adults, the danger is that a heavy technology diet will cause us to forget how to meaningfully interact with other people.

Being an optimist, I like to think that we'll realize that even when we can hold everything in the palm of our hands, something can still be missing. One day, we just might wake up and say: Remember when we used to talk to one another?

Which gets us back to the good news -- face-to-face conversations. We should have them -- lots of them -- and make sure the kids in our lives do, too. Not that many haven't figured that out for themselves.