Despite our continual digital connections to everyone and everything, people today feel more lonely and less supported than 30 years ago. I was reminded of this fact recently as I observed a family at a restaurant. Mom, dad, and three brothers ages approximately 10, 7, and 4 were all bent over their devices, tapping away. The parents were on their smartphones, while the boys played video games on their individual mini pads. The level of distraction was off the charts, while the level of conversation was zero.
Research has shown that the mere presence of mobile phones inhibits the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and it decreases the amount of empathy and understanding people experience from their partners. A 2014 study in Pediatrics of families dining in restaurants found something similar to my experience: most parents were at varying levels absorbed on their devices and disengaged from their children. Some kids responded with indifference, while others showed increasing bids for attention that drew negative responses from parents; not exactly a Norman Rockwell picture.
Young adults tell me that their generation has a hard time with face-to-face conversations; the interactions feel awkward, time-consuming, and unpredictable. It has become easier and safer to communicate online where they can feel in control and have the ability to edit their responses. Growing up with distracted parents can leave kids feeling insecure, unimportant, and disconnected. The lack of down time to sit and have deep conversations deprives children of the opportunity to learn how to listen, debate, get in other peoples shoes and see things from their perspective, experience the give and take rhythm of conversation, and ultimately to develop empathy and social skills.
Smartphones and other devices are here to stay, and bring benefits to us all. What we seem to lack is balance that would include plenty of unplugged time to experience solitude, quiet reflection, and deep uninterrupted conversation and connection. Consciously make the choice to put devices away when you are gathered with family and friends. During meals make eye contact, have open discussions, debate, laugh, and experience the joy and security when people take the time to be fully present with each other.
Read this previous blog about why so many women in college binge drink because of social awkwardness: