The Social And Emotional Costs Of Technology Use

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Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, once saw a student texting a friend who was just across the room. When Nass asked why she didn’t speak to her friend instead, the student replied that texting was more efficient and that “it doesn’t really make a difference if you see the person or not,” recalls Nass in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (Nass is an alumnus of Princeton). 

This student was not alone in her behavior:

“Nass noticed other instances of people choosing electronic devices over face-to-face interactions: people using a tablet or phone at restaurants, forgoing conversation; tweens and teens texting as they sat together—reminding Nass of how toddlers play near each other but not with each other, a concept known as parallel play.

How will all this affect young people’s social and emotional development, he wondered. ‘The way you learn about emotion is by paying attention to other people,’ reading their facial expressions and listening to the tone of their voices, says Nass, a professor of communication who studies the psychology of human-computer interaction.

So Nass and colleagues decided to look at the emotional and social implications of heavy media use and media multitasking—for example, checking Facebook, chatting online, and watching a video at the same time—among girls 8 to 12 years old, a critical period in their emotional development.

The girls who reported being avid online media users and multitaskers, and spending less time engaging in face-to-face communication, had lower self-esteem, felt less accepted by peers, had more friends whom their parents considered bad influences, and didn’t get as much sleep. ‘We found the best predictor of healthy social and emotional development was face-to-face communication,’ says Nass.

Most people write happy things on online platforms such as Facebook, he says. Yet ‘negative emotions take the most practice,’ he says: Negative emotions are much more complex and use much more of the brain.

Parents worry about their children’s acquiring academic skills, he says. But more important are emotional and social skills. The ability to understand your emotions and manage them, ‘the ability to pay attention, to listen to others, to empathize, to do all that—is a huge predictor of doing well,’ he says.

If children are growing up with less face-to-face interaction, Nass sees problems ahead. ‘Increasingly, we are seeing companies talking about their young workers lacking these basic social and emotional skills,” he says. Will they be able to work in teams and collaborate in the workplace? ‘It’s a huge worry.'” (Read more here.)

Really interesting, especially in light of what we’re learning about the importance of “soft skills” to achievement (see Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed, for example). Have you observed that young people are lacking “basic social and emotional skills,” and if so, do you think the use of technology is to blame?


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4 Responses to “The Social And Emotional Costs Of Technology Use”

  1. Yes and to an extent, yes.
    I teach high school students digital storytelling, but the emphasis is on face-to-face communication, interviewing, making phone calls to set up appointments, etc. I didn’t teach in a pre-digital era, so I can’t compare how teenagers were able to use immediate social and emotional skills in the same context, but it is a huge struggle. Many students freeze when having conversations with strangers when gathering information for a story. Many ask me what to say if they have to make a phone call. It’s troubling, and startling.
    When communication is mediated through a screen, it’s all filtered and rarely direct in the way that face-time demands. I blogged about this last year:


    I’ve also talked to a mentor who recruits college students from prestigious universities to intern during the summer in my hometown of Louisville. He says that so many students lack the social/emotional skills to solve problems on their own–and these are “high” acheivers–because they remain tethered to their parents through cell phones and digital communication. Perseverance and decision making skills aren’t forming/happening on their own.

  2. This is interesting because I develop mobile apps for kids education. I am also a parent of 3 awesome kids. I always wonder as a parent, “how much screen time is healthy?” Its an important issue for child development. There needs to be a certain balance. I want my kids to be tech literate, to use tech as a tool. I think there is a limit to the amount of time any one should spend submerged in a device. Also I think the underlying reasons that any one person my do so also need to be identified and evaluated. This is a great post because it gets parents and teachers thinking about the emotional and social needs we all have and how important it is to cultivate them in our young people.

  3. I’m captivated by the effects on technology use not only on secondary and college students–and on the millenial twentysomethings in my intimate orbit–but also on babies, whose social-emotional skills are inextricably linked to their cognitive development. Digital dependence by parents and caregivers raises serious and interesting questions about human development and learning from the get-go, an issue I’ve been exploring in my blog for early childhood practitioners: http://www.ecepolicymatters.com/archives/1171

  4. Christian says:

    Agree from a social POV — and also from a neurological one. The way we process face-to-face social encounters is notably different from how we process them utilizing technology. They’re very similar (obviously) but there ARE differences and some of those can translate to the developmental.

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