If you have been following our blog series, you’ll likely notice a common thread concerning the negative impact that technology can have on the developing brains, bodies and skills of children and teens. If you haven’t read my previous blog posts, I invite you to catch up:

The development of communication and socialization skills in children and teens is another critically important consideration in the conversation around age-appropriate use of technology. These skills are often overlooked by parents who may not see or understand how much technology tools can interfere in their child’s development. 

For more than twenty years, I have been working on age-appropriate and developmentally healthy use of technology by children, and for 17 years, I was part of a team that hosted workshops at schools and organizations all over the United States on Internet safety education. During my travels, I have engaged students in conversations about the technologies they enjoyed using and what they used them for.

I will never forget a conversation in 2013 with a sophomore at a high school in New York City. In response to my question about what the students valued about the technology they used, he said that he liked the fact that he could break up with his girlfriend via a text rather than in person. When I asked him why he chose to break up with her that way, his response was “because I don’t want to deal with all the drama.” That response saddened me, and I have heard similar responses from many other teens across the U.S. It is especially important as our children grow up using technology more and more in their everyday life experiences.

While the sophomore may indeed have avoided some “drama” by sending his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend a text, he actually missed out on a critically important experience… How to have a challenging conversation with another human being about a difficult topic. In this case, the conversation concerned their personal relationship. By texting his few responses, he avoided any opportunity to enrich the conversation, learn in the moment, and consequently, reflect on how he might handle it better next time.

Texting is devoid of so many important aspects of human interaction! It strips away the inflection of our voice, our body language, our facial expressions, and our ability to assess and respond in real-time as a result of these challenging interactions. Human communication and interaction has been critical to our evolution as a species. This point explains, for example, why the face is made up of 43 muscles! It is muscularly more complex than any other area of our body. The nuances of our ability to communicate through human facial expression, when combined with voice, body language, and our words, are endless.

It hasn’t only been this high school sophomore who told me that he preferred to use technology to avoid a difficult conversation. I’ve seen and heard it hundreds of times from kids:

  • the 5th grade boy who was too nervous to talk to a girl he was interested in, so he used a chat room and email to communicate with her
  • 7th and 8th graders who used social media to lash out angrily at someone because they didn’t want to risk the conversation in person
  • a 6th grader whose feelings were hurt because she felt excluded from a group, and chose to lash out in a group text instead of speaking to the person in person about hurting her feelings

Anyone who has suffered through challenging conversations in-person understands how difficult it can be to navigate the nuances of that conversation, and figure out how to best express ourselves in a way that will lead to the best possible outcome. The more children practice these difficult communication skills, the better they get! Engaging in tough life conversations not only builds our communication skills, but arguably, this active participation also serves to help build our self-esteem and self-worth. 

Unfortunately, in ever-increasing numbers, children are turning to disinhibited forms of communication to avoid these challenging conversations. Disinhibited forms of communication are those that strip away our humanity in ways we typically interact with each other… text, chat and email are all forms of disinhibited communication. By stripping away at the things that make us most human in our interactions with each other, children run the risk of breaking social norms.

For more than twenty years, I have asked thousands of children and teens, from 3rd to 12th grade, why it is easier to be mean online than it is in person. There is no question whatsoever from kids that it is easier to be mean online, than in person! The response is always the same and delivered by the first or second hand I call upon: “Because you don’t have to look at someone’s face.”

Certain types of technology used by children and teens can severely diminish their communication and socialization skills if used to avoid difficult face-to-face conversations that are necessary for healthy and normal development.Doug Fodeman

Consider this: How does a violinist, football player or chess player get better at the art and craft of their pursuit? By practicing. If children turn to technology more and more to avoid difficult conversations because it is easier to do so, then they avoid important life opportunities to practice and develop both their communication skills and resulting socio-emotional intelligence. Extrapolate years ahead what it will mean for a child turned teen, turned adult if she or he increasingly uses disinhibited technology tools to avoid tough conversations. As an adult, she or he will have extremely challenging times trying to navigate a complex world with limited experience in these communication skills. And I believe that these limitations can impact her or his social interactions with others.

Many years ago I attended a session at a conference about technology in education about the possible negative impact from overuse of technology. During that session, a camp director spoke about how meaningful it was for her to receive a hand-written letter from young men and women who were inquiring about summer camp jobs, as opposed to getting an email. Though today the idea of writing a letter to someone about a job opportunity may feel quaint or outdated, the camp director’s point is well taken. Those who took the time and effort to put a more personal mark on their inquiry about a job touched her more deeply. They made an impression. And yes, she said that she was more likely to interview those who wrote a personal query because that personal query said something important about the person making it.

If parents agree with the premise that it is important for our children to have challenging and difficult conversations in person, or at least by voice over the phone, then we need to be sure to communicate this to our children. When someone’s feelings are hurt, for whatever reason, the riskiest thing to do is to try to make it “right” through disinhibited technology tools. We need to tell our children to have those conversations in person. If our child is owning up to a mistake and needs to make an apology to someone else, don’t let them do it via email or text! At the very least, have them write a personal letter to say he or she is sorry. Better yet, have them call or speak to the wounded person face-to-face. It is this type of interaction that will help our children build good communication skills, and strengthen their socio-emotional learning.

Want to learn more about this topic? Read: How Parents Can Promote Social and Emotional Growth At Home.