The Journal of Research on Adolescence has finally done it! A recent study of 487 middle schoolers growing up in lower income rural communities tells us what we all want to hear: the kids are not alright. And of course, it's technology that's fucking them up.
The survey focuses on those who primarily use Facebook, other social media, and text messaging to communicate, over IRL hangs or phone calls. (This is most teens nowadays: a 2015 Pew Research study found that 92 percent go online daily and on average they send and receive 30 texts a day.)
The study evaluated two core competencies: negative assertion (an ability to stand up for oneself) and conflict management (an ability to work through issues). Researchers went back a year after the first evaluation and found that a higher usage of technology was directly related to lower competency levels. In short, rampant use of tech prohibited development of important interpersonal skills.
"You're not seeing facial expressions or using nonverbal communications," the study's lead author told Futurity. "So, the predominant use of social media may limit the opportunity to practice in-person conversations that are crucial for adolescents, particularly boys, to develop important skills."
There is a tendency to see our online lives as separate from our "real" lives: the first impressions less lasting, the interactions less meaningful, connections less strong. In-person conversation is valued above all else. In her essay "#digitalfeels," Nora O' Murchu explores how we wrongly treat digital experiences as "immaterial, cold, algorithmic and foreign—devoid of human touch, emotion and sensibilities."
An Indiana University study of 72 millennials offers a bit more nuance to media naturalness theory, the dominant belief that face-to-face communication, and at the very least voice-to-voice, is more powerful than any other kind. "People who sent romantic emails were more emotionally aroused and used stronger and more thoughtful language than those who left voicemails," researchers found. Technology, they offer, is like "an umbilical cord."
This study focuses on emotion as opposed to relationship skills, but when it comes to matters of the heart, the two are inextricably linked. If you can transmit just as much feeling with an email than you can with your voice—maybe even more—I think it's safe to assume that at some point good negative assertion and conflict management skills can follow. We just haven't, as a society, had as much time to practice.
There's no denying that IRL communication is important. But I wonder if in continuing to compare other forms against it as some kind of golden standard makes sense in the digital age. Within just digital communication itself, there are so many questions that have gone unasked. Do reply times mirror a relationship's emotional reciprocity? For a couple, does making it "facebook official" impact long term potential? Only when we stop silo-ing digital communication and accept the reality that, for example, texting is the dominant form of communication amongst teens, will we see studies that can inspire true action.
I struggle to see what we can takeaway from this research is, other than that technology is bad for us. But no teen is just going to stop texting, so it makes me feel a bit hopeless. I wish that our research—and subsequent takeaways—could be aimed at making them better at using technology. If we defined our notions of "healthy communication" outside of just face-to-face, maybe we would find that the kids actually are kinda alright.