As children transition to their teenage years, they begin to look outside their family unit and develop deep relationships with their peers. It's a necessary step to becoming a functional adult, but the ups and downs of teenage relationships can cause a lot of stress for both young people and their parents. Nevertheless, one study published in August 2017 suggested that teenagers who developed close relationships with a few good friends were less likely to experience depression and anxiety as a young adult. By contrast, teenagers who depended on being the popular kid in the class tended to experience an increase in depression and anxiety as they entered their twenties.
This is something that most of us know intuitively - that deep friendships will bring us more happiness than popularity. In order to form deep friendships, two human beings must establish a basis of trust. In previous years, this was done through spending time with each other and having face-to-face conversations in which each person gradually reveals more and more of themselves to the other. Having established that basis of trust and acceptance, a true friendship forms.
Digital devices and social media have changed this pattern significantly. More and more, communication between people occurs via text or social media rather than in person. People are losing the ability to have a conversation, to read body language. They prefer to have a conversation online, where they can carefully craft a response rather than having to reply in real-time. Not only that, what someone says to your face can be very different from what they say about you online. Young people find it difficult to develop trusting relationships when they know that all it takes is a tap of the screen to turn a friend into an enemy or a crush into a "ghost".
MIT professor Sherry Turkle outlines the problem created by the digital world:
Digital devices separate us from and protect us from the consequences of our actions. While breaking up with someone via text message or ghosting them may make you feel protected, it causes the other person a lot of heartache....but you don't have to see it. Digital devices may act like a suit of emotional armour, but in shielding ourselves from the consequences of our actions, we lose our ability to empathize. We become disconnected.
"When you get used to being treated as though you can be ignored, we start to think that's okay and start to treat ourselves as things that should have no feelings...and others as things that should have no feelings...and you can see how a kind of decrease in empathy begins."
How do we go about regaining empathy? A lifelong fan of technology, Turkle recognizes that technology, while a powerful tool for drawing people together, has become such distraction that it is now preventing us from connecting with other people.
Turkle's remedy is conversation, giving each other full attention and putting our devices away, removing the barriers to trust and connection. Empathy and intimacy are born in face-to-face conversation. We learn how to read each other. We learn emotional literacy, not just how to use emoticons.
So, where do we start? How do we address the role technology plays in young people's lives? First, we start with ourselves. We need to be aware of how we use devices, when they help us, and when they push us away from genuine connection. We need to be honest with ourselves.
Second, we need to make changes that reflect our true priorities. We need to make time and space for device-free moments. We need to put technology in its place, saving our vulnerability for other human beings rather than our smartphones.