Is Texting Ruining Our Relationships?

Yes, according to Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author several books, including Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. In a recent column in the New York Times, Turkle documents what she calls a “flight from conversation.” Here’s how her column begins:

WE live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.

At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.

Turkle continues:

We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.

Our colleagues want to go to that board meeting but pay attention only to what interests them. To some this seems like a good idea, but we can end up hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another.

Moreover:

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, “I am thinking about you.” Or even for saying, “I love you.” But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.

I could keep on quoting from Turkle’s column, which is rich with unsettling insights. But I’ll stop quoting and encourage you to check out the original for yourself.

I expect that some of my readers will be inclined to say that Turkle is exaggerating, that she is overplaying her hand, that technology is not the threat to genuine relationship that she considers it to be. I would somewhat agree with this critique if I were to reflect only on my own behavior. I’m too old to be an inveterate texter. The majority of my text messages are sent to my wife, my children, and my close friends. I usually share some little quip or respond to something they have texted to me. I often use text messages to tell my family that I love them. I almost never text when I’m in conversation with others, and if I do, I almost always ask permission to send a short text.

But I am an oddball, at least compared to the younger generations. I know this. I have found myself in all too many meetings where one or more “participants” has disappeared into his or her smartphone. Just today, I was driving someone in my car. This person was texting others while supposedly having a conversation with me. Our interaction was partial and superficial and not terribly satisfying to me. I do not think my companion sensed that anything was lacking.

Laity Lodge, along the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country

I’m not asking you to throw away your smartphone or to stop texting. But I am asking you, even as I’m asking myself, to start paying attention to the ways technology is shaping our lives and our relationships. If you’re a person who tends to text a lot, or to put up a constant flow of status updates or tweets, let me encourage you to think about how this is impacting your relationships.

Why not try an experiment? For the next week, when you’re having a conversation with someone, or sharing a meal, or sitting in a meeting, put your phone on silent (not vibrating, but fully silent!) and put it away. Pay attention to what happens in your own soul. Are you addicted to your technological fix? Do you count the seconds until you can check your messages? If so, what does this say about you? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life do you want to live . . . really?

Now a confession. As you might know, through my work with Foundations for Laity Renewal, I am closely related to Laity Lodge, where I used to be the Senior Director. Until recently, Laity Lodge was a technology-free zone. No cell phone signal invades the peacefulness of Laity Lodge. And, until a year ago, there was not a wifi signal in our main meeting room, the Great Hall. Many of our guests at first struggled with being cut off from their technological fix. Honestly, I did too, at times. But I discovered, along with almost all our guests, that going “tech free” for a few hours was restorative and refreshing.

Well, now we have wifi service in the Great Hall. Along with many others, I now have to fight the temptation to check my email or my Facebook if a speaker is less than compelling. Mostly, I’ve been able to stay completely in the room, rather than traveling out into cyberspace. But then Apple came up with Messages, an app that allows me to send and receive text messages from my iPad, which I use for taking notes and as a multi-version Bible. Even though I am not particularly addicted to texting, I find it terribly hard to ignore that little “1″ on my Messages icon. What if it’s from my son who is away at college? What if my wife is saying “hi”?

Yet, I am convinced that I want to be fully present when I am with other people, whether sitting in a meeting, listening to a speaker, or speaking with my friend across the table. I am not willing to lose the experience of being 100% with others as they are 100% with me. So, I am learning to choose conversation over connection, to use Turkle’s language. Oh, there will still be plenty of time to text, tweet, update my status, and check emails. But I want to discipline myself not to do these things when I am have the chance to be with people. I’m working on it. But, now I have to check my email.

  • Evan

    Mark,

    I have doubtless already established my Old Fogey credentials previously, but I am not anti-technology as such. I am, however, very selective about the technology I use precisely for the reasons you have cited. I text only when a phone call would be problematic for the recipient, for example. This is not because I am too busy chasing kids off my lawn and being grumpy, but primarily because a phone call is so much more efficient. It is taking me far longer to compose and type this than if I called you up and just told you.

    Yet my second reason for preferring phone to text is the interaction. Yes, I tied up the home phone line for hours Back In The Day talking to the teenaged goddess who was so fascinating but it was precisely because I could hear that magical feminine voice. “hahahaha” on  a screen is no substitute for the sound of a girl’s laughter. The current crop of texters in high school has no basis for comparison.

    And the thought occurs to me that the stakes become so much higher the farther you get from texting. From the vantage point of my fifties, the notion that you could ask a girl out on a date via texting is inconceivable. But as I consider it, had texting been available at the time, I would have used it in a heartbeat. Ginning up the courage to ask a girl out, thus revealing my personal emotions and facing rejection… what an ordeal. It is an extra added bonus that your voice cannot crack while texting, and you at least can read what you are saying before you hit *send,* whereas I had several instances in which I would have gladly recalled what I had just spoken into the phone. How great it would have been to hit *delete* instead of *send* upon momentary reflection. And getting a brief text rejection is far superior to being turned down and then having to gracefully exit the phone call in utter humiliation.

    Yet those mini-disasters are all part of the mix that have made me what I am. And face-to-face/voice-to-voice interaction raises the stakes in a relationship of any sort. It hurts much worse when you fail, but it is so much sweeter when you succeed.

    There is a proper use for all technology, and each part is extremely useful. For me, however, the exact sentiments conveyed in a love text on a screen cannot compare to the same on a hand-written note slipped under the windshield wiper of my car with the endearing feminine script I so prize. Apparently my clunky block printing does the same going the other direction. If all you ever know is texting, you never get to find that out.

    Evan

  • Don

    It dawned on me the other day while thinking about this very issue that technology has taken a giant leap backward.   Two century turns ago the hot technology for instant, long-distance communication was the telegraph and Morse code–looking at letters of the alphabet.  With the telephone, we were blessed with the ability to communicate instantly over long distances with our actual voices!  Now with texting, we are back to exchanging letters of the alphabet.

  • Jennie

    Mostly, I just think this is all super new to us and that, over time, we’ll learn to moderate.  Remember when the “old fogies” didn’t love the telephone? “This new technology takes away from face to face contact!” they said.  Now, it’s annoying when people text or fall into their cyber-world when with other people.  It won’t be the same – but, it will evolve into something we’re all used to and works for the new generation. Peer pressure will eventually prevail …I think. 

  • http://www.myrealjourney.com Maria Kettleson Anderson

    I think there are huge spiritual implications to this, too! “Presence” requires my full attention, and if I cannot give that to my kids or my friend at lunch or to the people with whom I’m meeting for work, I probably don’t know how to give that to God either. I use social media daily, but my day starts with time for God to get my full attention, and is mostly blocked out after that with times I give my full attention and presence to the person and task at hand. I don’t “multitask” well, but my full attention and effort works well for many things!

    I find the same “full attention and effort” has made me “successful” at social media. Our world is full of people hungry for someone to look past their updates and postings to their real personhood, and if I can set my phone to off and focus on God or the task or person at hand, it’s amazing what can happen in the connections that God can open up when I turn my phone back on and use it as He directs.

  • http://www.djiboutijones.com/ Rachel

    Great article. I live most of the time in Africa and was shocked to come to the US recently and discovered that people don’t talk face to face anymore, or with their mouths, but with fingers.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks, Evan. Sorry I’m just writing this comment rather than calling. :)

  • markdroberts

    Very interesting. You’re right! Thanks for the comment, Don.

  • markdroberts

    I hope so.

  • markdroberts

    Great thoughts. Thanks!

  • markdroberts

    Thanks.

  • Singpraise

    If smartphones have become this popular in such a short period of time, exponentially, as technology advances again, I don’t see any TIME for this texting distraction to take a back seat. I wonder what it will evolve in to? What “new advances” will take it’s place?

  • Singpraise

    Fantastic research and writing! These wake-up call articles are much needed. It seems like everyone is always somewhere else in thought, almost asleep! Real relationships are suffering and lacking. My husband and I resisted the draw of technology to purchase smartphones. We felt a near manipulation every time we upgraded our cell phone contract. There was a “pressure” from the salesperson to purchase a more advanced package that includes “internet”, all of the bells and whistles. We were both livid and remained true to the original purpose for owning our phone in the first place.

    We explained that we were fine using our computer for these purposes. We did not want the constant temptation (even for money making purposes) to constantly have the internet at our disposal. When we use our computers at home (we are choosing when we get online) utilizing, and demonstrating self control. They argued that smart phones have built in maps for our convenience, but we already HAVE a Tom-Tom that works just fine! We have all of the online map services we can use when planning a trip!

    You see 4+ years back we decided to avoid using the texting services on our cell phone because we wanted to actually “hear” the person’s voice we are conversing with. Our phone then was hit with a barrage of “unwanted” texts. We felt invaded, our time felt stolen. My husband and I love to actually “hear” each others voices when we converse, the tone, inflection. We will continue to resist this wayward pull of technology for our own protection and well being. We relish our happiness!

    I feel so sorry for this present generation. With all of the texts and short posts, how can they ever establish real, honest to goodness relationships with one another

  • guest

    I feel like this site is protestant.


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