Something out of the ordinary—and truly remarkable—happened to Sarah Schweizer a few months ago.
The Monkton architect had a meaningful conversation with her 16-year-old son Whit. Better yet, he initiated the chat about how best to map his high school and college goals. It was the kind of conversation mothers crave. One with give and take, depth, and resolution.
And it happened via text.
Now, whether you're cheering Schweizer for her successful connection with her son or rolling your eyes because of the insidious rise of virtual communication may depend on whether or not you have kids yourself.
Today's preschoolers can be found, face down, streaming the Disney Channel on a parent's smartphone. Teens are buried in their gaming devices, speaking only to those who know the secret to unlocking the next level of Angry Birds. And parents are driven to distraction with their Droids, iPhones, Kindles and, now, their iPads. Across generations, if we're not texting each other, or checking e-mail, or talking on the phone, we're playing with, reading on, or watching a show on our devices—often, while in the same room with a bunch of other gadget gawkers.
Last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 83 percent of adults and 75 percent of teens have cell phones. Nearly half of all Americans own a laptop, gaming device, or MP3 player, and one in 20 owns the newest technology, an eReader or tablet computer.
We hate our tethers to these devices, yet love their convenience. We overuse them. We cry when we lose them. We scoff at families who sit in the same space staring at screens instead of each other. And we cringe when we realize we've become that family.
Parents are a child's most intimate link to good communication, preaches Arthur Rosenbaum, a family and couples therapist who also teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
"Remember the long family car ride?" he muses. That was a time, he says, when families had a real opportunity for togetherness. "Now we've got movies in the headrest and in the center of the minivan. Now it's nice and quiet in the car."
Parents are missing the chance to show kids the back and forth of conversation, the use of vocabulary, the dynamics of opposing viewpoints, he says. And the opportunities aren't just whizzing by on road trips. Now that technology is so mobile, parents are often tempted to pay more attention to their gadgets than to their kids. His pet peeve? Moms who talk on the phone while pushing a stroller.
"Here's the message we send," he says, grabbing his cell phone to demonstrate. "'Hold on, I'll get to you. Just let me check this e-mail first.' We're teaching kids that it's okay to be distracted by a third thing."
"It shows up here, too," he says, pointing to his tan therapy couch. He routinely counsels couples who complain that their spouse is constantly checking e-mail or texting or talking on the cell phone while they are together. It makes them feel ignored, he says.
"The distraction is very addicting," Rosen-baum admits. "Both social habit and brain chemistry are working here. We get pleasure from knowing what else is going on in the moment, but we're telling our family, 'Being with you isn't enough.'"
And that worries him. Families, he says, need to do more than simply occupy the same space. "At some point, kids need to learn to do this," he says, leaning forward and locking eye contact. Without it, he believes, relationships are bound to suffer.
Jodi Cavanaugh can't hide her surprise. The Hamilton mom just found out that her 16-year-old daughter, Evan, texts her friends roughly 150 times a day. Both mother and daughter glance at the smartphones in their hands as they process this revelation.
Turns out, Evan is not all that unique. While a typical teen boy sends 30 texts a day, teenage girls like Evan are much more prolific with their keypads, averaging 80 texts per day.
More than 75 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 own a cell phone, and they use it more to text, rather than call, according to the Pew report.
Phone calls are a "hassle," says Evan.
She doesn't feel comfortable talking on the phone, her mom interjects. "I ask her to call and make a hair appointment, and she says, 'What should I say?' and I have to say, 'Tell them you'd like to make a hair appointment!'"
Older kids—college-aged young adults—are thoroughly dependent on media and technology, especially their mobile phones. A recent University of Maryland, College Park study, "Unplugged," asked nearly 200 journalism students to pick a 24-hour period to venture into the world media-free and out of touch. Most of them couldn't finish the study, calling themselves "addicted" to their electronic devices.
Today's students, researchers concluded, were substituting "virtual relationships with media" for "real connections to others."
Daniel Creasy sees that at The Johns Hopkins University as well. He's the school's associate director of undergraduate admissions. A big part of his job, he says, is to present information to students the way they want it—in other words, via Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.
"The hardest thing I've seen with this generation is that every week, they change their minds about what [device] they're using," he laughs. Every few months, he notes, there's a new mode of distraction. He finds it hard to keep up.
And former social worker Linda Stone worries that this is no substitute for real conversation.
"Parents think they know everything that's going on because they communicate [with their kids] by text every day. But that's just checking in. They're not necessarily getting to the meat of a topic," says Stone, who teaches in Towson University's Department of Family Studies & Community Development. "Children can get the feeling like they have a shorthand way of talking to their parents. They think, 'Now my parents are satisfied, because they've communicated with me three times a day.'"
"I don't think anything can replace face-to-face for good interpersonal communication," she says. "Non-verbal clues are equally, if not more important, in getting a message across. There's body movement, tone of voice, eye contact, touching. In a text, I can't see your eyes welling with tears, or hear the catch in your voice."
Sarah Schweizer feels that texting with Whit has actually opened up lines of communication. She's not sure that they could've had that sensitive talk about his future if Whit wasn't protected by the safe haven of his text message screen.
"It's easier for him to initiate a conversation like that via text," she says. "I don't know that it's a good thing, but I'm having the conversation, and that's what's important to me."
And Whit really appreciates that Mom makes an effort to communicate on his terms. "She'll take a picture of something funny and send it to me," he says.
Whit even gets in trouble via text message.
"If I've done something and she finds out about it, she'll send me a text about it," he says. Frankly, he prefers it that way. He likes that there is less emotion (from her) and less defensiveness (from him). "Texting gives me an easier way to put down what I'm trying to say, rather than just arguing with her," he says.
Often, says Schweizer, quick text talk opens up a bigger conversation at a family dinner, or in the car, or on the side of one field or another—any of those rare places where Whit actually puts his phone away.
The Schweizer family has a loose rule about "no contact with the outside world after 10 p.m." But mostly, Sarah tells the boys when it's not appropriate to have their computers and phones out, and they are good about it.
Sarah prefers the "work-with-the-devil-you-know" approach. Parents, she says, may as well embrace their kids' technological world because it's not going away. "IMing was the big thing when Whit was eight or nine. Now, that's totally out because of texting."
She imagines that the next thing will be just as pervasive. And she'll learn to adapt to that, as well.
Schweizer should take comfort. Even the strongest advocates of in-person communication are not immune.
Not long ago, therapist Arthur Rosen-baum was bonding with his younger son, Ben. They were settled into the couch, the game was on, and they were having a conversation—sort of. The conversation wasn't up to Rosenbaum's standards. There wasn't enough eye contact. There wasn't enough back and forth. Rosenbaum wanted more.
But Ben wanted to talk and text at the same time.
"Could you stop? Can you put that away? Can we have a real conversation?" his father asked in frustration.
"This is how my generation does it, Dad."
"And he's right," says Rosenbaum, rubbing the top of his short-cropped haircut as he retells the story. This is how the world is going. "He's bringing me into a place I want no part of. My only hope is that there is a balance coming for all of this."