Not Waving But Drowning: Social technologies haven’t killed teenagers’ ability to communicate

Every generation laments their soon-to-be replacement for abandoning the prevailing culture and adapting it to create their own. And so it is with the current crop of post-middle-agers who perceive teenagers to have lost all ability to engage in conversations longer than sms-length and have meaningful relationships that are not solely based on “likes”.


This particular technological crisis facing teens has been heralded by academic Sherry Turkle. Once a cyber-utopian, her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is rallying her generation to the dangers of technology that is serving to isolate us from each other and threatens to destroy our children’s ability to form any sort of meaningful relationship.

This refrain has been taken up by the [media[( with a vengeance and reiterated at every opportunity. World-wide, teens can no longer communicate in a meaningful way, have lost the art of conversation and prefer to text than talk. The damage that texting in particular has done extends to teenagers now being unable to write without using text abbreviations.

Nobody would deny that texting in particular has become all pervasive. US teens between the ages of 12 and 17 will send on average 60 texts a day. However, the mythology and generalisations that have grown up around texting doesn’t bear much scrutiny.

Research has shown that although teens express a preference in using messaging in certain situations over phone or face-to-face conversation, they do so because it is faster, asynchronous, available at non-traditional times, more effective and in some cases less expensive (where voice calls on mobiles are more expensive than text messages). Young people understood however that “in-depth and important” conversations should be offline and face-to-face.

Other research has shown that contrary to popular belief, teens use of “textish (words like gr8 or cul8r)” or abbreviations is relatively limited with 60 - 80% of texts sent using no abbreviation or “textish”. In addition, researchers showed that there was no difference in standard literacy scores between those teens that used textish and those that didn’t. Teens understood the difference and context where the informal language of textish was appropriate and where it wasn’t.

It is easy to assume in all of this, that communication between teens, and all other age groups for that matter, was perfect before the advent of technology. The fact that we notice more people seemingly more actively engaged with their phones than with their companions ignores the fact that in the past, those same people may have been sitting together in silence, or exchanging small-talk to fill that silence. People who text may rate higher on social anxiety and loneliness than people who prefer to use their phones to talk, but it is not as if they would have conversed with anyone if texting was not available.

Sherry Turkle is probably right in decrying the typical modern meeting where everyone is sitting doing their email or checking Facebook rather than listening to whoever is speaking. The point about this however is not that somehow technology brought this state of affairs about, but rather that it highlights the pointlessness of those meeting in which the participants feel no need to engage. And yes, people sitting next to each other may instant message rather than talk but that may actually serve to increase efficiency and reduce disrupting somebody’s train of thought for something that could wait.

Technological change is always met with anxiety that it will somehow detract from our humanity. From 19th century textile workers fearing losing their jobs to low-skilled labourers aided by technology to workers today fearing the same, the transformative nature of technology has always been seen as a panacea by some and an anthropogenic plague by others. As always with these things, the truth lies somewhere in between.