Less Tech ... More Talk

Less Tech ... More Talk

While modern technology appears to be bringing us closer, many people are
actually lonelier and more dissatisfied with their relationships than they were before these communication devices were invented.

(the case for conversation)

by Tracy Carter

WOW! What an amazing age we live in! Thanks to modern technology, we can connect with other people like never before in history. Our devices and smartphones are truly miracle-gadgets, allowing us to share ‘virtual’ face-to-face conversations with friends or loved ones on the other side of the world. We couldn’t even dream of that a few short years ago – yet today it’s all oh-so-easy! You can be sitting in your Christchurch kitchen eating Weet-Bix for brekkie, while ‘skyping’ your mate in London as he chows down on a tea of bangers-and-mash! 

Of course, as with most new developments, there’s a downside. Thanks to these same miracle-gadgets, it’s also now possible to share a meal ‘in the flesh’ with your partner, your child or your friend and have virtually NO conversation as you both fiddle with your phones – absorbed in diverse digital dabbling.

Is all this hi-tech progress a double-edged sword? Could be! On the one hand, technology and social media have shrunk our world. They help us stay connected with grandparents overseas, and they let us catch up with far-flung friends we haven’t seen in ages. Truth is, we probably know more about each other than ever – and all without having to read that much-loved and equally-loathed missive, the Annual Christmas Letter! 

But on the other hand, say some experts, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet. While modern technology appears to be bringing us closer, many people are actually lonelier and more dissatisfied with their relationships than they were before these communication devices were invented. 

As Susan Tardanico (a contributing writer on Forbes.com) puts it: “With all the powerful social technologies at our fingertips, we are more connected – and potentially more disconnected – than ever before.” 


 Hey, I’ve got no problem communicating! My wife and I text each other all day – sometimes even when we’re in the same room with each other!”

Yeah, no problem with that – unless it means you’ve got your devices on hand all day, distracting you from whatever else you’re supposed to be doing. And ‘texting your spouse when you’re in the same room’, instead of chatting face-to-face, might suggest that you’re over-using that tech. Where’s the eye contact? Where are the cues to how your spouse is really feeling – her tone of voice and facial expression?

The latest research is in: just the visible presence of a phone in the room (even one that’s switched off) can affect what people talk about. It’s the distraction factor (thinking about what you want/need to do on that phone when you get your hands on it again) as well as the fear of interruption. Conclusion: when there’s a phone around, people are inclined to keep their conversations light – they never really get into the stuff that matters.

An Oxford University study discovered that couples who rely on technology to keep in touch tend to have less satisfying marriages. Couples who used five or more electronic channels of communication were, on average, 14% less satisfied with their relationships than couples who weren’t as electronically connected.

Be warned: if texting is your primary way of communicating with your spouse, you could be missing out!

Sherry Turkle, researcher and author of ‘Reclaiming Conversation’ (and her earlier book, ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other’) argues that we should reduce our reliance on digital communication: “Face-to-face conversation is the most human – and humanising – thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. But these days we find ways around conversation …”


It’s not just couples who should be wary of relying too much on tech. It seems that parent-child relationships are also suffering because of this new trend. People used to tell their kids, “Use your words!” and “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” – but, in today’s reality, many of us neither model that behaviour nor expect it from our kids. 

“Use your words”? We’d rather use emoticons, thanks J. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”? Well, you might be looking at me (if you don’t already have a phone of your own) but I probably won’t be looking at you because I’ll be looking at mine!

There’s even a new word for the phenomenon of playing on your phone while someone’s talking to you: PHUBBING, a term coined by James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University. He explains, “To be phubbed is to be snubbed by someone using their cell phone while in your company. The ‘phubb’ could be an interruption of your conversation with someone when he or she uses their cell phone or is distracted by it (furtive glances when they think you’re not looking) instead of paying attention to you.”

Is that what we do as modern parents – snub our kids in favour of playing on our phones?

In ‘Alone Together’, Sherry Turkle looks at how technology affects family relationships. After interviewing hundreds of kids, she found that children are often the ones complaining about their parents’ obsession with technology. Kids feel like their parents pay less attention to them than to their smartphones – they put their kids ‘on hold’ while they finish texting, emailing, or otherwise interacting with their device. 

We might be busy working to put food on the table, connecting with our jobs even when we’re out and about, juggling the competing demands on our time and attention, and doing all this because we love our kids and want to provide for them. But the fact remains: our kids feel neglected because we spend so much time on our phones! Ouch …

Turkle writes, “Children need to learn what complex human feelings and human ambivalence look like. And they need other people to respond to their own expressions of that complexity. These are the most precious things that people give to children in conversation as they grow up.”

Kids need more from their parents than what Turkle describes as ‘continuous partial attention’. If we want them to learn how to be fully-functional humans, we need to provide them (as often as poss) with eye contact, face-to-face conversation, and our undivided attention.


The tech-related problems plaguing families can damage grown-up relationships as well. Young adults often complain about their mates being distracted by devices when they’re trying to have a heart-to-heart. But, what’s interesting is that most also admit that they don’t pocket their own phones when their friends are talking to them! Just as kids suffer when they feel ignored or only half-listened-to by their parents, friendships also take a battering because of the ever-present distraction of smartphones.

Distraction isn’t the only problem, though …

Texting, social media, and other forms of electronic communication allow us to edit ourselves so carefully, to guard our online image so preciously, that we don’t let anyone in on the secret of who we really are. Perhaps because we now spend so much time cultivating our ‘image’ rather than actually working on our personal relationships, it’s possible to have hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ and yet be intensely, relentlessly lonely.

Tardanico asks the question: “Is the focus now on communication quantity versus quality? Superficiality versus authenticity? In an ironic twist, social media has the potential to make us less social – a surrogate for the real thing.”

Turkle echoes this sentiment: “Computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship – and then the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy.” She also argues that conducting our friendships primarily through technology robs us of the opportunity to hone and practice the ‘empathic arts’ – namely, listening attentively and making eye contact – as well as the chance to develop our skills at resolving conflict.

The result of this lack of training in emotional intuition and response is staggering: studies report a 40% decline in the markers for empathy among college students in the past 20 years. The most dramatic drop in empathy levels has been recorded within the past decade. Seems pretty obvious – and the researchers would agree – that this downward trend can be blamed largely on society’s growing reliance on these new forms of digital communication.


Okay. We can see the effect of digital technology on us as parents and as friends – but what about its effect on us as … ourselves? And, for those of us who rely on our smartphones for everything from our diaries to our communication to actually working remotely, a good question might be: Who are we without our smartphones? And can we actually function without them?

Turkle reports the case of a top executive who, needing to concentrate for a solid three hours while he worked on a presentation, handed his phone over to his secretary with the instruction to return it only in the case of a family emergency. This grown man – a vice president in a Fortune 500 company, powerful in his sphere of business – later admitted to experiencing growing anxiety at his lack of connection as the hours dragged on. He said he found being separated from his phone for so long almost too much to bear: “I know this sounds crazy, but I felt panicky. I felt that no one cared about me or loved me.”

Our phones have become like a treasured, tattered blankie that we can’t live without. A scary thought, right? And perhaps an even scarier vision of the future?  Imagine emotionally-stunted grown-ups (having never learned those ‘empathic arts’), shuffling through life with a coffee cup in the place of a dummy at their lips and a security blanket (aka phone) in the other hand wherever they go …


Myth #1  We think that our phones help us multitask better

In reality, multitasking makes us dumber. It’s true! Recent studies have shown that people multitasking while trying to perform tricky tasks experienced a drop in IQ scores similar to what you’d expect if they were seriously sleep-deprived or under the influence of marijuana! Our phones, with all their apps and uses, demand that we multitask, with the result that our ability to remember things is inhibited and we’re less productive (up to 40% less!). This ‘mental juggling’ changes how our minds work – and, in the long-term, it actually damages our brains.

Myth #2  We think that our phones pave the way to better conversation

If you’ve read all the way through this article, you’ll know that the mere presence of a phone inhibits proper conversation. And what you may have noticed in your own life is that some people are bypassing conversation altogether. Instead, they’re resorting to text to handle challenging discussions and resolve conflict. This might seem to make life easier, because we get to avoid some messy conversations, but it’s not a true ‘win’ for relationships. Arguing from a distance like this means that we never learn to deal properly with our issues; there’s also plenty of scope for misunderstanding, because it’s easy to read the wrong tone into text when we’re missing the cues of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice.

Myth #3  We think that our phones are a nifty way to stay in touch

Smartphones are a good way to stay in touch with friends and family who live far away; no argument there. But what about staying in touch with ourselves? Conversation is important, but so is solitude. Spending time alone – and unplugged – helps boost productivity, creativity, and problem-solving. It gives us the opportunity to be refreshed, to reflect, and to re-boot our brains … Seems worthwhile, don’t you think?

The truth is, our increasing reliance on communication technologies has had a negative effect on us and on our relationships. Both the quality and the quantity of real, in-person communication is suffering.


But wait!” you cry, “What about social media?? Surely that’s a technology worth having? Surely Facebook helps us be happier and better connected?”

(Before we answer that, have you ‘liked’ Grapevine on Facebook? Yes? Good – you’re onto it! No? Go do it …)

The truth is, Facebook and similar forums do have their place, when used properly. However, all too often, people MISUSE social media … 

1. to SKITE SHAMELESSLY: If there was ever a hashtag that sends up a red warning-flag – ‘Skite Alert!’ – it would be #blessed. The use of this little tagline is a great example of what’s wrong with social media: it’s shameless bragging thinly disguised as humility, and it feeds narcissism.

2. to SHAME PITILESSLY: Some prefer to hide behind Facebook’s relative anonymity, posting harsh, vindictive comments, and arguing ruthlessly with strangers. Writing on a screen makes it easy to forget that there’s a real person on the receiving end – and those words can do serious damage. Tragically, some victims have been so badly shamed in online forums that they’ve felt driven to take their own lives.

3. to PITY USELESSLY: If you’re a regular user of social media you’ll know that there’s a steady stream of news and appeals that tug at your heartstrings. You consider these needs, feel moved by them, and then promptly forget. We’re all heart and no action, because social media makes it too easy to scroll onto the next funny cat-video for a pick-me-up, after the depressing news of another earthquake, another flood, another boatload of refugees being tossed upon the waves …

That scrolling itself can be problematic – that constant checking, checking, up-down, up-down, can be addictive. And this addiction to smartphones – our ‘digital dependency’ – even has a name: nomophobia! And it’s a growing problem, especially in young people. That Fortune 500 executive we read about earlier who felt panicky when separated from his phone probably suffers from nomophobia. And he’s certainly not alone …


The temptation to check and re-check our internet feed, to say unkind things because we feel removed from the person we’re speaking to, and to ignore those around us in favour of the more exciting diversions offered by our devices – these aren’t the only temptations offered by our smartphones.

Our hand-held devices now offer us instant, unrestricted access to pornography. They offer a window into the lives of our exes, a glimpse into the homes of our neighbours, a peep into the glam world of Hollywood celebs. And all this perving and prying and peeping just isn’t good for us.

Addictions to internet gaming and pornography are a growing concern. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) reports that when people who are addicted to these activities participate in gaming or watch porn their brains are triggered in the same “direct and intense” way that a drug addict’s brain is triggered by the substance they abuse. And it’s the firing of that same pleasure-reward sequence in the brain that results in both of these addictions.

Addiction to social media is another new problem – and it’s now so common that a psychological scale has recently been created to measure Facebook addiction (you can try the ‘Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale’ yourself at http://psychcentral.com/quizzes/facebook-addict.htm).

We’re addicted to our smartphones, and we’re addicted to the sites and apps we access through our smartphones. Maybe it’s time we put down our devices and paid attention to what’s going on …


The picture the research paints is pretty dire. Smartphones and communication technology are killing productivity, damaging relationships, and harming our psyches. So what’s the alternative?


Communicating in person with others makes us happier and healthier – and it leads to happier, healthier relationships. For example:

Conversation boosts empathy. Research shows that when we put our phones away and focus on reconnecting with people face-to-face, our empathy levels go up. 

Conversation fuels connection. Through conversation we learn how to sense and respond to the emotions of others – and in so doing we create a connection with them that simply cannot be replicated through the medium of text. Love letters and emails still have their place in creating and maintaining relationships, but they’re no substitute for spending time together and being attentive to one another’s words, body language, and tone-of-voice.

Conversation fosters belonging. All humans long to achieve a sense of belonging and significance – and when we converse properly, we feel listened-to, understood and appreciated. Conversation tells us that we matter … that others respect us enough to give us their time and attention. We feel, indeed, significant. Our vast numbers of friends on Facebook might give us a false sense of significance, but it’s our smaller social circle – the people with whom we’d share a meal and a heart-to-heart chat (in real time – so no editing!) – who give us our true sense of belonging.


Thanks a lot, Grapevine!” you’re saying. “You’ve warned us that our iPhones might be the root of all evil in this day and age – but what on earth can we DO about that?! These devices are here to stay. And we’re no Luddites. If we’re honest, we WANT them to stay!”

Sherry Turkle talks about this. She points out that “knowing better doesn’t always mean doing better.” Parents know that their phones are a distraction when they’re with their kids – but that’s not enough to motivate them to put their devices aside. 

This is a common problem: we feel guilty, but we don’t act differently. So try these simple solutions:

Problem: Our phones are distracting us, leading to shallow relationships.

Solution: Create time and space for tech-free interaction. Set (and follow) rules in your home and with your friends about when you’ll keep your devices off and out of sight. Make a point of listening to people and offering them eye contact when they’re speaking.

To reclaim some face-time over screen-time, some families have implemented an ‘Internet Sabbath’ – a day (or days) set aside each week when they won’t use any tech devices. Video games, smartphones, and computers are all off limits. And it works! Families who’ve made tech-free space in their schedules find that it allows them to truly connect with one another; they report deeper relationships between family members and a greater sense of peace within the home.

Got it? Put down the tech – and talk!

Problem: We lose ourselves through the overuse of social media.

Solution: Find ourselves in the context of real life. We need to spend more time investing in personal relationships than we’re investing in social media – which means spending time with people and allowing them to know us as we really are.

We need to stop so carefully editing our image – how we appear to others – and start working on ourselves. We need to get out into nature – and instead of trying to fill up all that open space with our devices, we should work on growing as individuals. 

Got it? Put down the tech – and just be!

Problem: Our phones create a disconnect between what we say and how it affects others.

Solution: Be mindful of the person on the other side of the computer/phone. Consider how your words might come across, and be aware of the limitations of text-only communication (even with the dubious benefit of using emoticons!). Never write something that you wouldn’t SAY to someone’s face. For communicating with loved ones, save your important conversations for when you can be face-to-face (even if, because of distance, you have to rely on Skype or Facetime to do so).

Got it? Limit the tech – and watch what we say!

Problem: We’re growing ever more addicted to our phones.

Solution: Use phones as tools – a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Connect with others to arrange conversation-in-person, rather than relying on texts and other ‘virtual’ chats to replace face-to-face time. Gauge your phone use, and seek help if it seems impossible to set (and keep) reasonable limits on the time you spend on it. 

Got it? Set and keep tech-boundaries – and seek help if you can’t!

Problem: Multitasking’s making us dumber.

Solution: Take an app inventory, and set limits. Is dashing from Facebook to Candy Crush to your email inbox (and back again) taking too great a toll on your sanity? Well, kick some of those apps to the curb! Set time-limits on when to check various things (e.g., checking for new emails at specific times or intervals) – and try to focus on one thing at a time. Turn social media notifications off. And try to leave your phone alone at times so that you can really be present when you’re at an event, off for a walk, or otherwise out in the real world. Watch your kid’s rugby game … notice the clouds drifting across the sky … listen to the birdsong in your garden as you enjoy a cuppa on the deck.

Got it? Jettison those tech timewasters – and focus on what’s real!

It’s the same answer – right? – revealed again and again. It’s the way to restore balance. 

Less TECH … more TALK!
T – tech down
A – attention up (eye contact)
L – listen and respond
K – keep connecting (be intentional – make face-to-face interaction a priority)

Keepers of the Vine