Communication Technology Changes Our Relationships

Communication used to involve letter writing, telephones or -- gasp -- face-to-face conversations. But with today's communication technology, text messaging and video chat are becoming the common ways to interact with our friends and family. But what does that do to our communication skills? And what does it say about our relationships?

For instance, just days ago, Elliot Kort, 22, woke in his Lawrence, Mo., apartment, yawned, brushed his teeth and greeted his girlfriend, Elyse, in the way he does most every morning.

"Hi, sweetie."

"Hi, baby," Elyse responded. "How did you sleep?"

"It took me a little bit to get there, but I slept OK. How about you?"

"Very well," she told him.

Intimate? Ordinary?

Absolutely.

And yet, experts said, it is the fact that such a conversation is now deemed routine -- happening, as this one did, by computer, with Kort electronically chatting to his girlfriend at her apartment in Washington, D.C. -- that makes it remarkable.

"It's our morning breakfast table in the digital realm," Kort said.

Cyber-savvy experts view it as far more than that. It's an example of how technology -- and especially the growth in text messaging and live video chatting -- is allowing people to keep in such constant communication that it has begun to radically change the sense of what it means for people to feel together, or alone, or apart.

Researchers even have names for it: "connected presence" or "persistent presence" -- the feeling, through technology, that you are with someone when you are not. "It's having this sense, this ambient awareness, of your friends or family," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist with the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. "Even if you're not communicating or interacting, they have a sense of you being there and being OK, just by you being logged on." But the boom in constant connections also is raising significant concerns, from fostering poor focus and lack of independence to the real difficulty of cutting ties in an era of Facebook "friend" connections. More privacy questions are sure to arise with the evolution of new phone applications. Foursquare or Gowalla now tell people where you are, using Global Positioning System satellites. Some worry, too, about stalking, domestic violence and being connected to people who are truly unwanted. "We are seeing persistent texting," said Parry Aftab, a lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, an Internet safety organization. "People wanting to know where you are at every hour of the day, who you are with. When does it go from, 'I care about you,' to 'I'm a stalker, I'm a punching bag?' There's a thin line from what's reasonable and what's manic."
To be sure, technology's role in helping bring people closer is older than the chariot. Trains, planes, telegraphs, telephones have all played roles. But social scientists said that nothing had so narrowed that gap as the unprecedented rise in technologies (text messages, Skype video chats, Twitter, cell phone access to social networking sites such as Facebook) that allow people to commune with one another as they walk through their days, at any moment and anywhere. In January, a report on children aged 8 to 18 showed that 31 percent of second to fourth graders now own their own cell phones. By 18, nearly everyone has one. Some 4.1 billion texts are now sent each day in the United States, at least four times what it was in 2007. Last year, users of Skype, which offers instant messaging and video conferencing, logged onto their computers to make 3.1 billion minutes of calls, up 44 percent from the year before. Of all Skype users, just over one-third were talking face to face over live video. A few results of such constant connection: --Going off to college no longer means kids are on their own. "There are parents who are now sending their college kids wake-up calls in the morning," said Mary Chayko, a professor of sociology at New Jersey's College of St. Elizabeth and author of the 2008 book "Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Connectedness."
Maureen Baker, a teacher at Mize Elementary School in De Soto, Mo., said her daughter Hannah, a 20-year-old business major at the University of Kansas, "Probably calls me two or three times a day." Hannah: "I talk to her on my way to different class or when I'm grabbing something to eat. It's definitely comforting. Sometimes I'm a little homesick." Kristopher Scott Thomas, 19, from Houston, is a freshman at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville. "I, personally, bought a webcam and got Skype just to be able to talk to my father," he said. "I Skype with my family at least once a day." Nearly every Sunday, Kansas Citian Morgan Dameron, now a junior in film school at the University of Southern California, spends face time over the laptop with her mom, dad and younger sisters and brother in the metro. "If it's snowing, we'll take the computer outside and show her," her mother, Lori Dameron, said. --When high school friends part, the relationships don't break up. Shawnee residents Emily Hodgson, 19, and Tiffany Fletcher, 19, are best friends. Hodgson went to Mid America Nazarene College in Olathe, Mo. Fletcher went off to Southern Nazarene College in Oklahoma. They almost talk more now than when they were together. "Texting is the best thing that ever happened to me," Hodgson said. "She's even more updated on my life than some of my friends in Kansas."
--The perception of improved relationships. "Staying in constant communication actually adds to relationships," said sociologist Barry Wellman, director of the University of Toronto's NetLab. Wellman said he knew one couple, married for about three years, who text "I love you" to each other 50 times a day. Kort, the student in Lawrence, attended his grandmother's funeral earlier this year. His girlfriend couldn't be there. He said that in the limousine, surrounded by grieving relatives, and driving back from the gravesite, he took out his cell phone. "I missed her so much I could barely breathe," Kort said. "I wanted her there so badly." He texted, "I miss you so much." She immediately texted back words of comfort. Kort understands that some people might blanch at the notion of texting at such a moment. "Without knowing what is going on, it could be deemed as rude," he said. "But I did feel better. When you're dealing with your family in a situation like that, you hope that they can lift you up as much as you can lift them up. But, at that moment, I needed her to be there." And in a virtual sense, he felt she was. Researchers and others also recognize that such constant communication also presents difficulties -- even a dark side.
Chayko, the New Jersey sociologist, said there existed a general sense that such constant communication, often conducted while multi-tasking in the midst of other activities, was creating a culture with a shortened attention spans. People talk or text while they walk or eat, watch television, sit in the movie, attend classes and, dangerously, drive. A recent poll of some 1,200 teens showed that 24 percent literally sleep with their cell phones. "That is a rising trend," Chayko said. "It is a compulsion to be in contact. People actually feel nervous, uncomfortable when they are too far away from their phones." It becomes a preoccupation, she said. "They have trouble doing one thing at a time. When they meet friends face to face," Chayko said, "they will be texting at the same time they are with these other kids. They are used to juggling all these interactions, and they are good at it, but there is a loss. "There is a loss of focus, a loss of reflection. There is a loss of depth." Maureen Baker, whose daughter calls or texts her from college multiple times each day, certainly cherishes her constant contact with her daughter. But she sometimes wonders whether it comes at the price of her daughter developing greater independence. Like Chayko, she also senses that repeated contact may also be an outgrowth of people being unaccustomed to exploring quiet moments.
Although being in constant contact helps sustains relationships, it also can make getting out of those relationships that much harder. "We run into all kinds of messy situations," said Madden of the Pew Center. "I am thinking about relationships -- after breakups, sometimes long after breakups when you start wading into the waters of Facebook, and the friends of all our friends in college. "Suddenly realize you are reconnected to your old boyfriend. You're seeing all these pictures of his children, all this information you did not seek out and would not have come to seek out otherwise." Part of living in an age of constant communication, she said, is learning to isolate yourself from unwanted contact. "You can find young people who can obsess about their exes," said University of Denver's Lynn Schofield Clark, who studies how digital media are changing family relationships. "Twenty years ago, you'd worry about passing your ex-boyfriend in the hallway at school. Now you don't know what you're going to click on and be reminded of what your ex is up to today." The same goes for adults. Amber Bourek, spokeswoman for Safehome, Johnson County's domestic violence agency, recalls a client who left an abusive marriage. Twenty times each day, the man continued to text her, "Miss you," and "Thinking of you."
One day, when she knew he would be at work, she headed to the house the couple once shared to retrieve some belongings. Once she got to the house, she hear the man's voice on the answering machine: "While you're there, let the dogs out." "You can imagine how terrifying that was," Bourek said. Aftab of WiredSafety.org said the constant communication could too easily lead to constant watching. While dating, she said, girlfriends can check cell phones to see who their mates are texting and talking to. Boyfriends may know Facebook passwords to see who is sending messages to their girlfriends. Technology "allows us to have a spy camera everywhere our significant other is," Aftab said. "And that information can do some serious damage when you no longer care about that person." When you do care, Kort said, there will always exist a difference between being together through technology and in person. "This is nice and cool and a means to an end," he said. "But I think we are the purest forms of ourselves when we are physically together."
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