Anti-social technology? — Screen time competes with face-to-face time in today’s wired world

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining social technology use on the central Kenai Peninsula. Next week’s story will focus on social networking Web sites that facilitate in-person meetings.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Skyview High School freshman Haydn McDermott, Kenai Central sophomore Kayla Chivers and Skyview sophomore Cassidy Rosas check text messages at a Kenai River Brown Bears game on Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

High school sophomores Kayla Chivers and Cassidy Rosas sat at the top of the bleachers at the Soldotna Sports Center on Saturday night, backs against the wall, heads bent down, glancing up periodically at the Kenai River Brown Bears hockey game playing out on the ice below, but too deep in conversation to pay much attention to it. Just not necessarily with each other.

The duo is part of a new generation growing up on cell phones, iTunes and social networking sites. While some initial studies have been done as to the effect of these new technogies on the next generation, a pair of local psychologists say all of the effects have yet to be fleshed out.

Kayla had her cell phone in hand, an appendage cemented to her palm that rode along while she adjusted her jacket or gestured, presenting a flash of plastic and glowing screen while she flipped it up in front of her to check incoming texts or punch out new ones. Cassidy had hers stuffed in a boot, fishing it out and re-stowing it along the ebb and flow of her texting conversations.

They talked to each other, glancing at one another’s screens, conferring over messages sent and received. And there was occasional interaction with other teenagers at the sports center, arrayed in similar clusters throughout the crowd with most members occasionally checking and rechecking their own phones, or permanently staring down at a glowing screen.

“Geez,” someone older and technologically challenged may harrumph, “Why don’t they put down the gizmos and watch the game? Or get up, walk over to their friends and have a real conversation, already.”

That kind of “in my day” value judgment on teenagers’ use of technology is nothing new, Kayla and Cassidy said.

“Oh yeah, we get that a lot,” Cassidy said, laden with a verbal eye roll.

From their perspective, they are having a conversation. Several, actually, with many friends at once, all instantaneously. Isn’t that better than how their parents or grandparents used to communicate — one at a time over a phone line, waiting to see one another in person or (gasp) through letters?

Cell phones, texting, social media sites like MySpace and Facebook — that’s just how it’s done now. Kayla has had a cell phone for four years now, a Christmas gift from her parents. Cassidy got her first phone two years ago from her dad.

“They meant it for me to be checking up with them, but it ended up being more social,” she said.

Meeting someone who doesn’t have a cell phone these days would be the exception, not the rule, they said.

“It would be like, ‘You don’t have one?’ Weird,” Cassidy said.

If she misplaces her phone — which is at least a once-a-day occurrence, she joked — it’s a minor emergency.

“If I left home without it or don’t have it in my hand, it’s weird not to have it,” she said.

They text “all the time,” Kayla said. Kids try not to look at the screen when driving and know they should pull over, but “you can’t go without looking at it,” she said.

Their schools have policies against cell-phone use, but they said some teachers don’t mind if kids have them out when teaching has stopped — to listen to music while working on an assignment, for instance. Then there are the kids who have the keypads memorized, so they can text on their phone under their desk while still looking up at the teacher. And other teachers are getting with the times. Kayla said a teacher at Kenai Central High School wants to send texts listing homework assignments to the whole class.

Cassidy said she likes school, gets good grades, is a football manager and has a social circle she hangs out with in person, too. Their time on Internet social media sites, listening to music on iPods or texting isn’t hurting anything, she said. Although Cassidy said her parents do have to take her phone away sometimes, otherwise she’d stay up all night.

“My parents think if my grades go down or I’m tired they usually blame it on the phone and computer, or if I’m crying they ask, ‘Who texted you? What did they say?’ They always assume the phone had something to do with it. They’re usually right,” Cassidy said.

Still, technology use isn’t a problem, they said. It’s just how things are done these days.

“It’s part of the society now. It’s been around for a while,” Kayla said.

New, but not

In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press, allowing printed material — most notably, the Bible — to be dispersed to the masses. In 1835, Samuel Morse developed a telegraph system that was commercially viable. In 1876, the telephone came along. In 1977 Apple rolled out the first personal computer. Internet and e-mail had their beginnings in the 1970s, as well, and their use exploded in popularity by the 1990s, especially with the inception of the World Wide Web in 1991. Widespread commercial cellular phone service was authorized in the U.S. in 1982. Mass-scale, online social networking came about with MySpace in 2003, followed by the rival site Facebook in 2004.

Each new development revolutionized communications, generating considerable excitement about the technology’s possibilities, and either initial resistance to something new or retrospective concern over what may have been lost or changed in the resulting shifts in society.

In that respect, texting, cell phones, online networking and the like are no different. They’re just the latest in a long march of developments.

“It’s just evolving and changing and now we take them for granted,” said Dr. Terese Kashi, a school psychologist in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and 2009-10 president of the Alaska School Psychologists Association. “All these things happened (invention of phones, etc.) and I don’t think most people even think of them anymore. People don’t even know what a slide ruler is anymore, but I didn’t have a calculator when I was in school. Now, I don’t think most of us can think about what life would be like without technology.”

Computers, cell phones and portable music devices are ubiquitous these days, especially among younger generations, with the next newest, greatest thing probably a mere shopping season away. But just because they are, does that mean they aren’t harmful? Does being popular to the point of becoming ingrained in society render moot any negative consequences a new gizmo or technology may have?

The answer a few years ago, at least for computer communications, was no. Now, it’s more of a maybe.

Dr. Pam Hays, a psychologist in Soldotna, referenced a study done in the mid-1990s on the effects of Internet use on social involvement and psychological well-being. Though the Internet offers many benefits in the realm of communications, the study found that among new Internet users, those who used the Internet heavily for communication had negative effects on social involvement and psychological well-being. In essence, folks getting online to stay in touch, reconnect with old acquaintances or expand their social circle ended up feeling more isolated than they did originally.

“The original study seemed like if you did something that increased communications that would help people, but they found negative effects of Internet use,” Hays said.

Years later the study was redone, with results published in 2002. That study showed that the negative effects found in the first study dissipated over time, leaving the positive effects gained from Internet communications. However, there was a caveat in the new study, that people who tended to be outgoing and have lots of friends increased those tendencies through Internet communications use, and those who tended to be isolated without a lot of friends ended up even more so.

“They said, ‘The Internet predicted better outcomes for extraverts and those with more social support but worse outcomes for introverts and those with less support,’” Hays said. “Which seems to suggest if you’ve already got a good support network and you’re extraverted, the Internet helped you do more of that. But if you tend to the introvert and not have a lot of social support, the Internet tends to make you more so,” Hays said.

“I think it’s 50-50 at this point, like television. It depends on how you use it,” Hays said.

Wired for good and bad

It’s difficult to answer where the line lies in whether communications technology use is positive or negative. It’s clear there are benefits to such technology. For people in rural areas, in small populations or simply with specialized interests, cell phones, e-mail and the Internet can be hugely important, Kashi said, providing possibilities for social interaction that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

“And technology has literally been a godsend for some people with disabilities. It has absolutely has made life possible for them,” Kashi said.

Social networking through technology can be a way to meet people locally, too. It can help connect people of similar interests and facilitate planning get-togethers.

“One thing that has surprised me has been that people will occasionally tell me that they’ve met someone locally online, somebody that they date,” Hays said. “And it can also be a really nice way to stay connected to people who you normally wouldn’t stay connected with. And parents are able to keep tabs on kids more easily with cell phones.”

But there are risks, too, the biggest simply being overuse. Time spent in front of a computer or on a cell phone means time not spent interacting with others in person. While that may be fine to a degree, there comes a point where the importance of face-to-face communication outweighs the benefits of anything that can be done through technology, Hays said.

“I think there is the potential for greater richness in face-to-face interaction because you lose the body cues and facial expressions when you’re doing work on the Internet. The subtle forms of communications are lost over the Internet. Humor can be lost or misinterpreted over the Internet. There’s just more richness in the face to face,” Hays said.

There are some physical drawbacks to excessive screen time, too.

“One big problem is obesity among kids,” Hays said. “When they’re using the Internet or cell phone exclusively for social interaction there’s no physical anything involved. They’re not exercising, they’re not doing sports, there’s no physical activity involved. There’s also a concern about repetitive stress injuries. That’s already increased and they predict that it will start to hit people at younger ages because kids are starting to use computers starting in elementary school instead of as young adults.”

Today’s school-age generation is ground zero for demonstrating what all the consequences this shift to cyber-interaction may have, because this generation is growing up with it. Today’s children haven’t known anything other than keypads and screens, text messages and iTunes. Some effects are already becoming clear, and more are probably inevitable, Kashi said.

“Each of these things (new forms of technology) have done something different to our lives,” she said. “Certain neurological features will get strengthened, and other older features that we used to use and don’t anymore will atrophy,” she said.

Schools are already modifying teaching practices to meet the unique characteristics of a tech-savvy-from-birth classroom.

“To me, I see it as a reforming of how we teach students and how we learn,” Kashi said. “I think the days of rote memorization of information and regurgitating it back are coming to an end. I don’t know that we’ll ever get out of textbooks entirely, but we are getting more to a cooperative situation where groupings of students can offer each other a unique element to a whole learning experience. They’re consulting with each other and looking things up and asking questions. Rather than cheating, it’s a learning opportunity now. I think technology is impacting us that way, just because there’s so much information out there.”

The technology isn’t the issue as much as how it’s used, she said.

“It’s not just good or bad. It’s a tool. I always give the example of a hoe. You could pick it up and make a garden or pick it up and hurt somebody with it. It’s not the tool but the person and the intention with the tool,” Kashi said.

Chronic overuse of technology, to the detriment of face-to-face social interaction, could have serious consequences, especially for young kids who grow up that way. They could miss out on opportunities to learn all the valuable things that come from dealing with others in person.

“In computers all that we’re doing is improving on one aspect of communications, and we miss out on all that nonverbal communications. And at least 70 percent of that communication is nonverbal, so we’re improving the literal part, but we’re not working on all the elements of nonverbal, which would have to do with humor or intonation of words. You can’t really tell inflection of voice or softness of voice, or body language. (Computers) are very limited because language is very limited,” Kashi said.

“I think technology can open up huge, wonderful things for us, but it can also be abused. For kids, probably the most critical thing is to appropriately guide students on helpful, positive technology use.”

That’s easier said than done because, by and large, kids are the ones who know how to use the technology, whereas many adults are still learning. But adults have learned the larger lessons of interpersonal communications — how to get along, how to support one another, how to listen and speak clearly, interpret body cues and all those other skills that don’t translate along with text messages. There again is an opportunity for collaborative learning, Kashi said, and it’s incumbent on adults to bridge the tech divide and give it a try.

“It’s harder to discuss it because people who are older don’t know how to approach the subject because we’re not as versed in the topic so we’re afraid we’ll look stupid,” Kashi said. “But the better thing to do is for everybody to approach it together.”

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