When Children Text All Day, What Happens To Their Social Skills?

They Can Text, But Can They Talk?

Parents have a long list of concerns about children using technology: Will they be hurt by cyber bullying? Or meet with online predators? Will their homework suffer because they're texting 100 times a day? Are they sexting?

But what about a more basic question like, Will they be able to hold their own in conversation?

Actual conversation is becoming a thing of the past, warn some who study child development, and that's not good for our kids' future.

It's true many of us don't exercise our face-to-face socialization muscles as frequently as we did before the age of smartphones. Now we have an escape route, a Blackberry or iPhone, available any time a stranger (gasp!) starts up an elevator conversation. But adults at least have experience talking to strangers when forced to. The muscles are there, and we generally don't worry they'll atrophy all together.

And writer Dominique Browning made the point in The New York Times last weekend that the extinction of small talk has some upside, especially around the holidays -- no more forced niceties at family dinners.

But what about children growing up as dependent on gadgets as this next generation seems to be? What happens to the development of those skills if you've had a phone to stare at every time you didn't want to make eye contact while waiting in line? Can kids these days handle spontaneous social interactions?

"They don't know how to handle conflict face to face because so many things happen through some sort of technology," said Melissa Ortega, a child psychologist at New York's Child Mind Institute. "Clinically, I'm seeing it in the office. The high school kids who I do see will be checking their phones constantly. They'll use it as an avoidance strategy. They'll see if they got a text message in the two minutes they were talking to me."

Conversation takes practice, Ortega said, and a dependence on devices can make it that much harder for children who are already struggling socially.

"Another thing I'm noticing is they may have trouble initiating interactions, those small talk situations. They don't have as much experience doing it because they're not engaging in it ever. They always have something else going on," she said.

And despite the rise of digital communication, Ortega said, adolescents will need to converse. "I can't imagine these kids sitting down in an interview and having a reciprocal conversation easily," she said. "They haven't had these years of learning about awkward pauses. Being able to tolerate the discomfort is not something they're going to be used to, unless their parents make it a priority."

Still, experts are divided over how and to what extent technology is affecting the social skills of the next generation. Research on the subject is just beginning.

"We don't have all the answers yet," said Gary Small, a neuroscientist and author of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind." "I'm not against technology. I love it. I use it every day. But I have concerns about overuse."

Small is in the opening phases of a study to examine the impact of technology on our ability to recognize emotional expressions.

"Our brains have evolved to like constant stimulation and variety," said Small. "When you're dealing with the World Wide Web, it offers limitless opportunities to stimulate the brain. Face to face, it's 'Hi, how are you?' One can argue that's limiting, but when you do engage in face-to-face conversation, you realize how subtle, compelling and powerful it can be."

Humans send many nonverbal cues, from fidgeting to foot tapping, long pauses to eye contact. Reading those signs is a skill "that young people are not learning when they're using these devices," Small said. "We all know the story of kids breaking up with each other through text message. When you have to fire someone or give them bad news, it's uncomfortable. In face-to-face conversation, you've got to think on your feet. ... You've got to respond right away."

The good news, according to Small, is that human brains are pretty malleable. "It's not too late. You can teach people empathy skills. You can teach them to look each other in the eye," he said.

Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist, argues that we should be less focused on how kids are using technology and more focused on why they're using it so much.

"We're seeing very, very young children being given these devices to soothe them and to entertain them, and it's displacing the connection with the parent," said Rowan. "We're seeing escalating diagnoses of all sorts of mental illness in children. And when we think of what is mental illness -- it's children that aren't happy and aren't well-adjusted."

Last year, a British neuroscientist warned that Internet use may be rewiring our brains and leading to attention deficits. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is also on Rowan's list of concerns, in addition to the possibility that children are growing up more detached from other people.

"As children and parents are attaching more and more to technology, they're detaching from each other, and we know as a species we need to connect," Rowan said. "We're really pack animals. We need to be connected to other human beings. That's just a fact for any living organism; it doesn't do well when it's on its own."

The ability to self-regulate -- that is, to manage our own emotions and behavior -- is being undermined, too, Rowan said. If mom stops to talk to someone on the street, for example, children are reaching for the phone instead of joining the conversation or otherwise figuring out how to amuse themselves for a few moments.

"These children are not entertaining themselves, they're being entertained by a device ... so there's no creativity, there's no imagination, no self-initiation," Rowan said. "These things are very, very important for sustainability and your own self-gratification and happiness when you're older."

Technology is certainly not all bad. Its positive effects on youth are well-documented, from the benefits of laptops in schools, to the ways in which iPads are helping children with autism become more social. Social networking, too, has a real upside, from raising self-esteem to encouraging expression of "virtual empathy."

Yalda Uhls, a researcher in developmental psychology with the Children's Digital Media Center in Los Angeles, has a more positive outlook on how all these devices are affecting our kids. Uhls, who is collaborating with Dr. Small on the study, thinks that so far it looks like the rich get richer.

"For a child who is comfortable socially, [technology] will not change their ability to interact, and they'll use this tool as a way to get even more social," she said. "And a child who's not naturally comfortable socially may turn to these screens to interact, and they won't get practice [face to face]."

Uhls argued that in much the same way that reclusive youths turned to television and gaming systems in the past, so might today's teens turn to computer screens and smartphones. In other words, researchers may find that while the tools adolescents use have changed, the way they use them -- and their effects -- remain the same.

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