Interpersonal skills can take a back seat to the allure of social media

by Melanie Terez, ’14

On a typical Wednesday afternoon, sophomore Isabelle Durrenberger and junior Morgan Wilcox have vastly different routines.

Durrenberger races off to violin practice for two-and-a-half hours after school, getting home to have a quick dinner before practicing again. Wilcox hitches a ride home and finds herself with plenty of time to relax and study.

Durrenberger struggles to keep the Facebook tab on her browser closed, glancing over her shoulder periodically to be sure her parents do not notice and get angry. Wilcox sits down to do homework with several tabs open on her web browser such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, in addition to those needed for school, but her parents do not mind.

Wilcox’s iPhone is in-hand as she scrolls through pictures on Instagram, and chats with friends on the iPhone apps Gifboom and Kik.

Durrenberger and Wilcox represent the digital divide between students who frequently use technology to communicate and those who rely more on in-person communication. In a technology-filled world, students like Wilcox find themselves often connected to social networking websites and apps via their smartphones and computers. Other students, however, like Durrenberger, limits her social networking to Facebook.

In a world where technology is a growing trend, our generation’s face-to-face communication skills may be imperiled.

Life Without a Phone

‘How do you survive without one?’ some kids used to ask her, before she got her first cellphone this year. But Durrenberger did just fine without a cell phone. She laughed off surprised reactions of friends and classmates because by that time she was used to them. It wasn’t until just recently that Durrenberger got her first cellphone.

As surprised as peers were, Durrenberger was not alone in not having a cell phone. A 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center at Harvard University found that 22 percent of the 802 teens surveyed in the U.S. between ages 12 and 17 are without a cell phone.

Durrenberger’s parents were concerned that her having a cellphone would create too many distractions from her busy schedule.

Durrenberger never seemed to be in much of a rush to get a cellphone, although not having one has its pros and cons.

“I think not having a cellphone [helped] me stay more focused on school work,” Durrenberger said. “I already have trouble not opening Facebook on the computer while working on school work, so I can’t imagine the self-restraint it would take to focus on homework while not taking out your phone and checking your texts.”

Not having a cellphone also created problems when she needed to reach someone quickly because without a cellphone she found herself at a loss. Occasionally Durrenberger would even end up temporarily stranded at an after-school activity due to the inability to contact her parents for a ride home.

Cell Phone Alternatives

Durrenberger plans on sticking with Facebook for her social networking. She does not see the point of Instagram, and as for Twitter, she believes there is only so much you can say in 140 characters.

“I think technology initially lessened stress… Everything at a more basic, less instant level did help people,” Durrenberger said. “But now I think being able to access everything right at the moment really adds more pressure to everything.”

With a different perspective from that of cellphone owners, Durrenberger said what happens in person is more valuable than what happens over Facebook or texting.

“In general, cellphone-use distracts people from what they’re doing at the present,” she said. “I think people still need to realize what happens in person means a lot more.”

However, Durrenberger is not convinced that technology use correlates with a deterioration of face-to-face communication skills. She said she has plenty of friends who are frequently on their phones and seem to have fine face-to-face social skills.

UAHS school nurse Laurie Long would agree with Durrenberger; she said that what happens in person is generally more valuable than what happens through texting or social networking. However, Long is uncertain as to whether or not the use of technology impacts a person’s face-to-face communication skills.

“I know every generation has new technology, but what I see is students and parents texting rather than speaking in person,” Long said. “It increases communication, but the quality is questionable.”

Constant Communication

For Wilcox, a cellphone is a necessity. She has had a cellphone since fifth-grade, but has since gained texting among many other features in addition to basic calling. Due to anxiety, Wilcox finds it difficult to part with the device. She often uses iPhone apps and social networking sites such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, Gifboom and Kik, an instant messaging app.

“I would die without my phone,” Wilcox said. “I have anxiety if it gets taken away. My teachers can’t take it away or I freak out.”

Because of this attachment to her cellphone, Wilcox often finds herself texting friends and on Instagram scrolling through pictures until she falls asleep. If her parents were to take her phone away, she would become too anxious to fall asleep. She said she is often still on her cell phone during class.

Wilcox is not alone in this anxiety. A 2012 study by the Internet security firm SecurEnvoy found that nomophobia, or the anxiety caused by being without a cellphone, is on the rise.

However, Wilcox finds that time away from technology is occasionally refreshing. Each year at summer camp, Wilcox lives without access to a phone for a week. Wilcox uses this time to get away from the stresses of life and technology at home.

“That’s one thing that I love. That’s the one week I can get away from everything so I don’t really mind [not having a phone],” she said.

When at home, however, her cellphone needs to be within reach. While it is difficult for Wilcox to be without her phone, she also finds having it with her to be a major distraction. Wilcox said her math tutor confiscates her cell phone before each lesson because she knows it will be a distraction.

“My friends from social networking sites [are] all in [a group chat] but I end up leaving it all the time,” Wilcox said. “They talk all the time and [my phone] freezes because they talk so much.”

Wilcox uses a wide variety of social networking sites and apps to meet and connect with friends. She is often part of a group chat including friends made on apps such as Kik and Gifboom. While this is usually fun, sometimes it can become stressful.

Despite these distractions, Wilcox thinks smartphones reduce stress.

“If I didn’t have [a] phone I’d probably explode because I need it for everything,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox, who represents a group of students who are attached to their cell phones, does not believe there is a direct correlation to communicating through technology and face-to-face communication skills. Durrenberger agrees. However, company managers have recently noticed that Millenials, the generation

born between 1982 and 2002, have been doing unusually poorly in job interviews, and it seems technology use might be the culprit.

Social Skills in Jeopardy

“Human resource professionals say they’ve seen recent college grads text or take calls in interviews, dress inappropriately, use slang or overly casual language and exhibit other oddball behavior,” Paul Davidson wrote in USA Today.

According to Davidson, this lax behavior in interviews is the result of a generation who grew up texting, using smartphones and using social media.

“‘So much off-the-cuff speaking in tweets and text messages has left many young people with stunted social skills,’ said Jonathan Singel, director of talent acquisition for Avery Dennison, a packaging and label maker,” Davidson wrote.

Clinical child psychologist Steven Schwartz notes that using technology can have both positive and negative impacts. In people who are naturally outgoing, Schwartz believes that technology hinders their communication skills. However, in the case of people who naturally tend to be anxious in social situations, using technology could either help them communicate or could further damage their abilities to socialize in-person.

“[Frequently using technology] may contribute to lack of practice and/or further avoidance,” Schwartz said of people with social anxiety. In his opinion, increasing technology use can be interpreted as either a positive or a negative.

“Technology is a catalyst for a species evolving,” Schwartz said.

He suspects that the reason for the increased use of technology today is due to the exponential development of new products, as well as our lack of finding balance in our lives regarding the time we spend using this technology and time spent without it. Due to this exponential growth of technology we are experiencing today, addiction is fairly common.

“Addiction to technology is [caused] because people have developed dependency on it,” Schwartz said. This can lead to stress and anxiety when one is without that technology.

The Future

While it is unclear whether the amount of technology used has a direct impact on one’s in-person communication skills, frequent use of technology can potentially lead to addiction and anxiety. Singel would argue that increasing reliance on technology undoubtedly has an impact on face-to-face communication skills, as observed in Millenials’ job interviews. Schwartz is a bit more skeptical. Wilcox and Durrenberger also agree that the current increasing use of technology and face-to-face communication skills do not necessarily have a correlation.

While impacts of technology use on in-person social skills may not be clear yet, it is possible that its affects become more pronounced in the future as technology further develops and use of it continues to increase.

“[Jaime Fall, vice president of the Human Resource Policy Association] and other HR executives say such quirks [like texting or taking calls during a job interview] have become more commonplace the past three years or so, and are displayed by about one in five recent grads,” Davidson wrote. “They’re prompting recruiters to rule out otherwise qualified candidates for entry-level positions and delay hiring decisions.”

While the amount of technology we use may not appear to be an issue now, we may have a problem on our hands in the future.