Technology is tricky.
On one hand, things like digital messages can enable you to connect with people on the other side of the world in what feels like an instant. On the other hand, the way we use those connections can cause stress and open you up to miscommunication that could be avoided by a simple in-person conversation.
Regardless of the implications, adopting new communication technologies tends to be the norm.
Take your phone, for example: How long do you spend on your various social media apps? And for that matter, how often do you actually spend time with the people you talk to on those apps?
Another thing to consider is your texting and other general phone habits. On average, Americans spend 26 minutes a day texting and send 5.3 more texts than the number of calls they make, according to a 2014 Gallup survey. And, as of 2015, 52% of smartphone users say they check their phones a few times an hour or more. That’s a pretty substantial amount of attention to divert to an inanimate object.
As new technologies emerge and grow, they tend to become the default, working their way into our lives because they are presented to us as the most convenient—and therefore best—option. It’s progress, after all.
Things like landlines and hand-written letters have fallen to the wayside in favor of these new, faster, and easier modes of communication. It’s a tendency that ingrains itself into society as quickly as we adopt each new method of communication, whether it’s for our personal lives or our professional ones.
Constant connection like this can have an impact on our real lives. And that impact is far-reaching.
Some job recruiters, for example, are switching from phone-call initial interviews to texting-based ones. And work-focused chat apps, like Slack, are also changing the way we talk with each other, making it easier to stay in the loop and take a more relaxed, informal approach to workplace communication.
What better way to connect when we all have our phones on us at all times, in all places?
But the blade slices both ways. One Pew survey found that 24% of teens who reported being constantly online said they met with their friends in person outside of school every day or almost every day, and 23% of less-frequently online teens said they saw their friends almost daily. Meanwhile, 69% of respondents who reported being online ‘constantly’ said they talked to their friends through digital means every day, or close to that.
So, based on that survey, it seems that the more indirect contact you have with a person, the easier it is to feel like you’ve spent time with them.
These trends toward constant connection and low-effort modes of communication as a replacement for in-person interactions can also make us feel like we’re beholden to answering any and all questions that are asked of us, and that, in turn, makes us more likely to choose the easiest option to reply. That means even less face time and more quick messages.
Just as our use of these technologies is changing, our attitudes towards them are changing, too. A 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center revealed that more people are beginning to see the internet as a mixed bag when it comes to impact on society than in previous years. It tied positive views of the internet to information access and connecting with others, while negative views were based on a wider range of issues, like effects on children and the potential for illegal activities.
Your perspective shapes your attitude toward communication technologies, but so does the way you use the tools at your disposal.
You can, for example, take these written messages as an opportunity to think about what you’re saying and how you say it, to convey the right tone for the situation and thereby avoid gaffes.
But at the same time, you can unintentionally overlook things if you aren’t taking the time to really consider the messages you receive in their broader context. Technology is a useful tool, but there are times when information would be more easily communicated given the context of things like the 21 distinct emotional facial expressions that most people can identify, or tone of voice. And choosing the easier path in those situations can lead to misunderstandings.
Ultimately, the merits of these tools we use to make digital connections depends on how we use them. And making intentional choices about the modes of communication we employ from day to day can go a long way in changing the way they impact our lives, as well as how we think about these technologies and their role in society at large.