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Face-time vs. Cyber-time

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

Do computers and other electronic texting devices detract from or reduce the frequency of regular face-time conversations? Are people using email and texting to the detriment of more personal oral conversation? Here are some conclusions from the research.

First conclusion: NO

"Rather than conflicting with people's community ties, we find that the Internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters. With the help of the Internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. More, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet."

(From the Pew Internet and American Life Project, The Strength of Internet Ties. 2006)

Second conclusion: YES

However, very different conclusions were reached by Professor Norman Nie and his colleagues at Stanford University, who concluded YES:

"The more time people spend using the Internet, the more they lose contact with their social environment . . .As Internet use grows, Americans report they spend less time with family and friends, shopping in stores or watching television, and more time working for their employers at home - without cutting back their hours in the office. A key find of the study is that the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings."

--Norman H. Nie and Lutz Erbring, Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report, IT & Society I (2002), 275-83.

Most illuminating to me is this excerpt by the psychologist Daniel Goleman, who finds "a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain's social circuitry and the online world."

"In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered no the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track . . .But the cortex needs social information - in change in tone of voice,say - to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say."

--Daniel Goleman,Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior, New York Times, February 20, 2007. (Goleman is author of the two bestsellers, Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.

Clearly, time on the Internet is time away from other real live humans.

Examples: I know a fellow who spends 12-16 hours a day online running his internet business. I know a number of parents who complain that their kids are online instead of playing outside with friends, and a wife who says her husband goes directly to his computer when he arrives home to play interactive games with people he's never met. And so it goes.

The main, old-fashioned point I want to make is this: Absent the cues of voice and body language, your text messages are relatively empty of emotion. Video-conferencing with sound is better, and telephone is good (especially if I already have a felt sense of you from an earlier meeting.) But only a face to face encounter will allow for the communication of the fleeting nuances of feeling.

Of course, you should continue your emailing friends and relatives and business associates. The Internet is a helpful tool. Just don't confuse a brief text message with a real-life encounter.

The first is relatively barren of feeling, but the second is rich. These two modalities are very, very different.

Loren Ekroth 2009, All rights reserved

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact Loren at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of valuable resources and articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com and subscribe to his weekly free Better Conversations ezine (which also entitles you to two very informative reports).


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