Let’s begin with a few statistics. In 2010 the Nielsen Company conducted a study that examined dependence on texting among 60,000 mobile phone users. As would be expected, teenagers scored the highest, averaging 3,339 text messages a month. The average texting among female teens topped out at 4,050 messages a month. That’s one text message every seven minutes of a sixteen-hour day. Tellingly, the researchers also noted that voice communication among teenagers dropped by fourteen percent in just one year.
What is the impact of this trend?
We are losing sight of what is important and what is urgent. Let me define my terms. Importance is our highest calling—our personal mission—founded on such principles as love, integrity, understanding, forgiveness, and transcendence. In contrast, urgency is the interruptions—the loud, demanding voice that shouts, “You need to pay attention to me right now!” Text messages—and other faceless communication—that do not advance a personal mission are examples of urgency. To be clear, a text message that says “I love you” is mission-based (although such intimate messages are better suited for face-to-face encounters). Text messages that are glib, trivial, pompous, or sardonic are seldom principle-centered. It’s not that living a life of urgency is wrong; in the long run, it is just not very emotionally or spiritually fulfilling.
Yes, there are times when urgency is in alignment with one’s mission. For example, if your son were in a serious accident, you would drop everything to get him to emergency. That’s an example of something that is both urgent and important. But that’s the exception. We spend the lion’s share of our lives responding to interruptions that are urgent but unimportant.
Consider texting and driving. A 2011 report by The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that roughly half of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old Americans send and receive text messages while driving. Personally, I think the number is higher. When I was teaching at Washington State University, all my students admitted they routinely texted while driving.
Texting behind the wheel is the perfect example of tending to what is urgent but unimportant. It’s like saying, “I ran out of gas because I was too busy driving.”
But is it possible that texting (along with our love affair with selfies, iPads, Twitter, and Facebook) is eating away at our very character?
A 2013 University of Winnipeg study reported that low-texting college students identified with life goals that were moral, aesthetic, and spiritual. In contrast, high-texting students (punching out over four thousand messages a month) reported an affinity for life goals that centered on wealth and image.
I’m not suggesting that the Winnipeg study is evidence of a cause-and-effect correlation. But I do think it is representative of a cultural trend—a move from community to individual desires, from empathy to narcissism.
Technology has another downside. Our youth have come to equate the number of cyber connections with intimacy. At the end of a course on interpersonal communications at WSU, I asked my students what they could do to make their relationships more meaningful.
“I’m going to build greater intimacy with my friends,” one student said.
“That sounds noble,” I offered. “How do you plan to do that?”
“I will text them more often.”
Ouff, that hurt. If he had been even marginally attentive during the term, he would have known that texting and intimacy are not synonyms. Texting may be efficient, but it is not intimacy, for intimacy is qualitative, not quantitative. It evolves through face-to-face transparency, non-judgment, and empathy—all of which takes time.
In today’s society, when a young, sensitive person seeks more from a relationship than a ream of cryptic messages, the other will often become impatient. The French author and journalist, Jean-Louis Servan, said it succinctly: “With the slightest disruption or inconvenience, we have the sensation of being wrong about the other, and we determine that it is easier to simply drop the person.”
There is a physiological reason for Servan’s observation. Antonio Damasio, director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, explained that deeper emotions—such as empathy—“are inherently slow.” Although the brain reacts instantaneously to threat, it takes much longer to respond to the psychological suffering of another person (a phenomenon of the brain that can actually be observed on a magnetic resonance imaging machine).
Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer finalist, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, explained that the synapses in the brain become permanently shaped by repetitive functions. In a phrase, we become what we practice. On the average, Americans spend eight hours a day on their screens—computers, iPads, televisions, and cell phones. Their eyes are constantly flitting from one point of interest to the next, not spending more than two minutes on any internet page, and no more than ten seconds on any image or text within that page. Eventually, their brain synapses become “hardwired” to respond quickly and superficially. As Carr put it, “… as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.” In other words, as avid consumers of technology, we are training our brains to be built for speed—and not for empathy or intimacy.
I know that I cannot turn back the clock of technology. There is probably not a teenager on earth who would set aside a smart phone for, say, an evening of singing around the piano. But that knowledge does not ease the pain of rejection when I reach out for a moment of compassion—from anyone, young or old—when I say to a pair of darting eyes, spellbound by flashing thumbs over a flickering screen, “Hello. Do you see me?”