By Tzippora Price
Adapted by Nomi Isenberg
What is the role of digital technology in interpersonal relationships? Does it bring us closer by making it easier for us to stay in touch with those we love? Or is it sometimes used in lieu of face-to-face communication, even when that is a viable option? How has the corona time we live in affected our modes of communication and connection?
Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and the Self, is currently the world-renowned expert on ways that technology transforms communication. Turkle is the author of five books on relationships in the digital age. Her newest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Turkle 2016) was a New York Times best seller. The popularity of her latest book, and those that preceded it, testifies to people’s hunger to understand what is missing in their lives, despite the myriad of opportunities to stay digitally connected. Somehow, in spite of texting, WhatsApp, email, Facebook, and Twitter, they sense that something is still missing.
Turkle explains that a conversation is much more than an exchange of information. It is a special way of hearing and being heard. A real conversation is a conversation where people give each other the gift of their full attention. In an interview in the Huffington Post (Huffington 2016) Turkle stated: “Research shows that if you put a phone — a phone turned off! — out on a table between two people having lunch, not only does the conversation ‘lighten up,’ move to more trivial things, but the connection that two people have lessens. They feel less of a commitment to each other.”
In other words, a face-to-face conversation without a phone on the table is a form of commitment. It states, I’m here with you. I’m here to listen, I’m staying right here and not running away, whereas answering the phone, checking emails, or texting is perceived by the person we are with as a form of disengagement. By being fully present and letting the other person know we are fully present, we allow the other person the opportunity to make themselves vulnerable to us. Face-to-face conversations provide instant feedback via facial expressions and body language that let the speaker know how the listener is responding to their words. If we are not listening, our lack of eye-contact and non-responsive body language will give us away.
Connection: Truly Listening
On the other hand, if we are listening, the conversation will evolve in a way that may allow us to experience genuine connection. Connection leads to empathy, which is the ability to understand how the person we are speaking with is experiencing the world. It’s not that we project how we would feel in their situation but, rather, we understand how the experience feels and what it means to the other person. In other words, empathy removes us from our limited perspective and allows us to access the world of the other.
The ability to connect to others in the time of corona is currently being challenged as a result of social distancing. The elderly, the population that is at greatest risk, suffer unduly from the current isolation imposed on us due to COVID-19 and stand to benefit greatly from the increased use of technology. Whereas a phone call might have sufficed in the past, the possibility of a video chat with children and grandchildren now offers a temporary reprieve from loneliness in the form of a visual connection.
But for other segments of the population, how much is video chatting with someone preferable to calling them on the phone?
In a New York Times letter of recommendation, written on April 28, 2020 (Gross 2020), author Jennifer Gross compares the value of a phone call to a dear friend to a video chat. The video chat, she contends, seems more like face-to-face interaction, but as she sits hunched over her computer, “watching a pixelated version of a person I love and saying ‘What?’ 17 times as her voice cuts out,” she’s reminded of how far away they really are.
Gross continues that, conversely, during phone conversations (much like the experience of reading a book, as opposed to watching a movie), there is an invitation to “co-create”. We don’t see what the person on the other end of the line is doing, so our “minds spontaneously invent a visual: a way of projecting ourselves into their world… with greater attunement to words and tonal shifts…to the details of my friend’s environment. And just as I am imagining her…she is imagining – inventing – me.” There is a deep connection between the members of the conversation, despite the fact that they are not visually available to one another.
Although people still have access to telephone and video chat contact with one another, the corona crisis, with its enforced isolation, is putting undue pressure on families. To the extent that the family is a stronger system, its members are able to weather the stress of constantly being together. However, if the family unit is weaker, they will have a lot more conflict during this time. Domestic violence is up and child abuse is up. It is more dangerous to be a woman during corona. Women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than they are to contract the illness. Online gambling and porn addictions will most likely worsen. The family is in a pressure cooker and the question is: does technology alleviate the pressure?
Having children engage with devices may offer parents a degree of respite that they may desperately need. But many parents, who had previously enforced limits on their children’s screen time, now feel they have lost the battle and have given up. Should children be allowed to just time-out and be on their screens?
Online schooling has been stepping into the void, saying parents and children need their distance, can’t be on top of each other all the time. School creates natural distance between them, thereby assuming a psychosocial function. Children are occupied, not just wasting time. But is it working? Is it just a distraction? Or is its prevalent use creating a new and/or unique educational model?
Author Bethany Mandel, in her article “Distance Learning Isn’t Working”, published on April 20, 2020 in The Atlantic, maintains that rather than move classes online, schools should provide parents support in the form of educational guidance and some loose lesson ideas. She continues that parents be granted liberty in how to educate their children in a way that is meaningful and integrated into their home lives. Children can learn math while baking, can learn how to cook with their out-of-work restaurant chef dad. They can learn while doing everyday tasks. Instead, parents are spending their days printing out worksheets and supervising video lessons, oftentimes for multiple children. It’s exhausting and it’s not working.
Despite the fact that online schooling has provided an option for younger students to continue learning when schools are shut down, it is particularly tough for parents and students with special needs who cannot learn in that type of environment, according to Chicago Tribune journalists Hannah Leone and Karen Cullotta (Cullotta and Leone 2020), as they write in their April 27, 2020 article, “Special Education Students Struggle with Remote Learning.”
Even students who do not have special needs may have needs that are unmet by distance learning. All students require a degree of emotional engagement, and the current technology is not able to help teachers deliver it. Educating online does not necessarily allow for educating the whole person, catering to their various needs – social, psychosocial, and emotional. It most often focuses solely on the student’s academic needs.
There are also technological-logistical limitations and frustrations inherent in the use of any internet program. Zoom, a video conference tool, is the medium of choice for distance learning in the time of corona. It, too, has its limitations and frustrations. Students who sign into an online class have their teacher zooming in on them, but they may not be zooming back: they may have multiple tabs open on their screen at once, allowing them to text with a friend or check their Facebook or Instagram and not be present and active in class.
Stanford University social science researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner’s studies have shown (Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2020) that people believe they can multitask, but really what they are doing is rapidly changing the focus of their attention. They are not actually paying attention to two things simultaneously, even though they think they are. Instead, they’re shifting their attention, and during that shift, they often miss important cues.
Space for Dialog
There is not much dialogue between between teacher and student when the former is lecturing on Zoom and the latter is diverting their attention in several directions. Conversation involves the person speaking, the message that’s heard by the receiver, and the receiver’s response heard back to the initiator. Zoom technology is very effective for teachers to be able to give a lesson online, but unless an interactive component is introduced, the teacher receives little feedback as to the impact of the instruction on the class.
A good teacher is constantly processing this feedback from students, primarily by looking at the students’ faces. Is it time to repeat a point, make a joke, or move on? Teenage students know that their teacher is getting little feedback from them and, being tech savvy, are good at giving the appearance of being present without being present at all, even more so than when sitting in a classroom.
One way to prove that students are present and intellectually engaged with the learning material is via an online discussion board. In some schools, in addition to the online class and homework assignments, the teacher posts a discussion board. During the week students are required to post comments about the lesson a certain amount of times. This pedagogic tool provides an additional benefit: it can be used interactively.
For the university student, the experience is, obviously, different. In an article in Forbes Magazine on April 24, 2020, educator Enrique Dans writes that there are a variety of tools and programs he has designed for his students that are working well. The question for him is: “Is online education just a substitute for face-to-face teaching, or are we already at a point where it could be considered comparable or even a better experience?” The answer, he feels, is complex.
When students have expectations that it will be the same as face-to-face learning, satisfaction levels drop. If the online course is rich in interaction, however, it meets with greater levels of satisfaction. In particular, the forum format, (supplemented with personal interaction via online conferences and interactive video), Dans contends, can be even richer than a face-to-face environment. “In an asynchronous online environment, they [the students] can participate whenever they want, use time to collect their thoughts, and even include other resources such as links to articles or videos. The result, from a relatively simple learning curve, is more in-depth discussions and better opportunities for learning.”
For younger children, however, in addition to changing the way they are schooled, technology also changes the way they socialize and interact with others, which can impact their mental and emotional well-being. Just as digital technology challenged the development of social skills and true connections pre-coronavirus, I believe that it does so now, as exhibited by student behaviors in online school settings. Are students meeting with schoolmates and interacting with their teachers remotely? Are friendships blossoming thanks to Zoom and WhatsApp video?
Numerous research studies correlate high levels of social media use, in both children and adults, with lowered self-esteem and mood. In a study published online by Cambridge University Press on April 23, 2014, researchers Kelly A. Allen, Tracii Ryan, DeLeon L. Gray, and Dennis M. McInerney found that as social media use has risen among adolescents, social connectedness – sense of belonging, psychosocial wellbeing, and identity development – has had a negative, as well as positive, psychological impact – and therefore, online tools create a paradox for social connectedness. On the one hand, they make it easier for the individual to form online groups and communities; on the other, they can “create a source of alienation and ostracism” (Allen, Gray, McInerney, and Ryan 2014).
All types of technology can have negative effects on children when used in excess, at the expense of interacting with their peers, causing them greater difficulty in picking up social cues, establishing meaningful relationships, and developing emotions. This isn’t to say that all technology is bad, or that children should never use it. Technology that is monitored and used judiciously can offer positive opportunities for learning, entertainment, and social interaction. The problem lies in managing its usage.
While online technology for older students and as a work platform serves worthwhile functions, I believe that it is problematic as a social interaction model. According to a Pew Research Center poll taken in 2018, “YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among teens. Fully 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online ‘almost constantly'” (Anderson and Jiang 2018). This leaves little time for face-to-face interaction.
Given the corona reality, alternatives are very restricted and therefore, it is great that we have the option of taking a yoga class online, attending a Zoom lecture, or video-calling friends and family whom we cannot meet with in person. But these options should be appreciated for what they are, and not come to substitute for deeper, more direct, and sometimes, more intimate modes of communicating.
We may sometimes need to disconnect our devices in order to connect with others; at other times, we may feel the need to disconnect from others and plug into digital technology. The important thing to remember is that the two modes of communication serve different needs and should not be confused with one another. If we choose to interact using a given platform, we should be honest with ourselves as to our motives. Either way, as Turkle writes, “People are lonely and fear intimacy…If we don’t come back to valuing conversation, we may all end up in a world without risk and without caring.”
Tzippora Price, M.Sc. is a marital and family therapist in private practice, and an acclaimed mental health journalist. She has been writing articles to increase community awareness of mental health issues for the past 18 years. She is the author of two parenting books, Mother in Progress (Targum) and Mother In Action (Menucha Press), and a psycho-educational novel Into the Whirlwind. She is currently at work on a fourth book.
Allen, Kelly A., Gray, DeLeon L., McInerney, Dennis M., and Ryan Tracii. 2014. “Social media use and social connectedness in adolescents: the positives and the potential pitfalls.” https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/educational-and-developmental-psychologist/article/social-media-use-and-social-connectedness-in-adolescents-the-positives-and-the-potential-pitfalls/92B9E45410B9031B410725340A4C1C66.
Anderson, Monica, and Jiang, Jingjing. 2018. “Teens, social media & technology 2018.” https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/.
Cullotta, Karen Ann, and Leone, Hannah. 2020. “Special education students struggle with remote learning.” https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-coronavirus-special-education-students-schoos-2020427-epnf2m4ur5cltowajqgdx3zify-story.html.
Dans, Enrique. 2020. How coronavirus is going to change education forever. Forbes Magazine. https://www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2020/03/24/how-coronavirus-is-going-to-change-education-forever/.
Gross, Jessica. 2020. What phone calls have given me that video chat can’t. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/magazine/phone-calls-pandemic.html.
Huffington, Arianna. 2016. “Connecting with Sherry Turkle: my q and a with the author of ‘Reclaiming Conversation’.” The Huffpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/connecting-with-sherry-turkle_b_8398960.
Mandel, Bethany. 2020. “Distance learning isn’t working.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/just-give-distance-learning/6102 22/.
Turkle, Sherry. 2016. Reclaiming conversation: the power of talk in a digital age. New York, Penguin Random House.