Where our smartphones fail us: ‘TTYL, but not face-to-face’

February 26, 2015

I find myself eating lunch alone in Leo’s once or twice a week. I can’t even imagine what I’d do with myself if I couldn’t look at Bleacher Report or Twitter during these meals. It’s the intuitive thing to do, to just scroll through my “feeds” with one hand while I eat with the other, and whenever I look up and notice others eating alone, I see they’re doing the exact same thing.

It seems like everyone is constantly nestled in their phones, and it’s easy to decry this obsession with technology as the end of human interaction. I realize this obsession with technology is no revelation, and we often forget that it is a trend that has plagued humanity since the Industrial Revolution. Throughout time, as technology has advanced, almost every step has inspired fear that the latest development will bring about the end of face-to-face communication. Yet this time, that fear feels more real than ever.

Take, for example, how friends interact today. Texting shapes their relationships, and some even depend on it as the bedrock of their social lives. I asked my first girlfriend out via text message. A couple months later, I broke up with her with another (in my defense, I swear I tried to call her—like five times). But the unsettling point is that, as far as my high school freshman self was concerned, that felt like an acceptable thing to do. The main problem, though, is that I know I was not alone in this thinking.

Today, when two people are starting to form a relationship, we say they are “talking.” But this talking is most made up of the couple sending texts back and forth after an awkward first date. Additionally, we’ve added norms to these interactions. The guy has to text first. If a girl adds a few extra Y’s to her “Hey,” she must be implying that she likes him as more than a friend. In my own conversations, I find myself adhering to these socially constructed norms of texting, even in interactions with people I view as just friends. I feel the urge to add an exclamation point to the end of my sentence so that people don’t think I’m mad or less excited than I truly am. If I want to use a smiley face emoji, I must navigate the vast spectrum of options. The traditional smiley may not show enough jubilation, while the winky will come across as just creepy.

Although these norms do end up shaping some of my interactions, at least I’m aware of their presence. For kids today, all they know is a world where texting is the way to talk to friends. My cousin in middle school, who got her first cell phone this year, was one of the last in her class to start texting. Her little sister probably knows more about how to work an iPad than I do. It’s not uncommon to see parents hand their kids a tablet while they wait for their food at a restaurant, instead of sparking a conversation. These practices reinforce the idea in children’s minds that electronics are simply a part of social interactions.

While the next generation is learning to interact with technology as an essential medium, some argue that this isn’t a bad thing. People are more connected than ever before, and kids can learn so much more about many more cultures and ideas through online or cellular interactions. If we moderate some of the content that they have access to, these experiences can influence the way they view others. But what these interactions are lacking is the almost intangible personal aspect of human relationships. Reading  stories of people around the world does not give me the experience of walking a mile in their shoes. In fact, misunderstandings can arise when we only have texting to try to understand someone’s emotions.

Even though this problem seems to have pervaded all aspects of our lives, it is one we can solve—or at least alleviate—simply through awareness. Knowing when we follow these text conventions or shut the world off to read Facebook posts is the first step to stopping our reliance on technology to communicate. Had I been aware of the fact that it’s difficult to relay an emotion through text, I may not have sent that breakup text back in high school. Maybe next time I’ll try eating at Leo’s alone without my phone.

Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller is a former news editor of The Georgetown Voice. Follow him on Twitter @MILLERdfillmore for unabashed tweets about the Sacramento Kings.


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