Does Technology Interfere with Relationships?

Most of my week nights end with me heading to bed and my soon to be 16 year old daughter still sitting at the kitchen table doing homework. I used to always say good night to her but I have to admit that I’ve fallen out of the habit since she rarely gives me more than a grunt in return and even that much of a response isn’t guaranteed. It isn’t that she’s being rude or selfish (at least not more so than is typical for most teenagers) as much as it is that she’s focused on getting her work done.

In the midst of homework the one thing that she seems to have time for is to communicate with her friends via text or twitter. So the other night I tried a new strategy: From 15 feet away I texted her “goodnight.” The new strategy came with a new result: I got back a “goodnight” AND a smiley face! Relational connection in the modern age.

A few posts ago, I mentioned a new book called Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. Since then I’ve read more of the book along with various articles by the author. One of her main points is that we are developing a generation who is relying more on technology and less and less on face to face interactions. One not atypical 16 year old boy who relies almost exclusively on technology for his relationships said, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Lest you think that I’m some sort of neo-Luddite, let me assure you that I’m not. But neither do I think it is wise to uncritically accept technology without reflection on its impact. So what kind of impact are new forms of technology having on our relationships with other people?

1. I think that technology tends to make our relationships more superficial. Texting is at its best when one is trying to communicates small chunks of information. But it isn’t very good at helping us really get to know people. Real friendships require working through messy and awkward stages. It requires us to work through feelings and other people’s bad days and grumpy moods. Turkle says that many young people “prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net. It gives them an alternative to processing emotions in real time.”

2. Technology allows us to self-edit in a way that hides who we truly are. Ms. Turkle writes of a man named Brad: “Brad says, only half jokingly, that he worries about getting ‘confused’ between what he ‘composes’ for his online life and who he ‘really’ is. Not yet confirmed in his identity, it makes him anxious to post things about himself that he doesn’t really know are true. It burdens him that the things he says online affect how people treat him in the real. People already relate to him based on things he has said on Facebook. Brad struggles to be more ‘himself’ there, but this is hard. he says that even when he tries to be honest on Facebook, he cannot resist the temptation to use the site ‘to make the right impression'”

My guess is that most Facebook users (I’ve never been on Facebook) wouldn’t be so blunt. But just from overhearing many people speak about it, I know that it’s not common to post unflattering pictures or posts with the intention of making oneself look bad. Everyone, consciously or not, is doing what Brad is doing and trying “to make the right impression.”

Part 1. Part 2.

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