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Social Skills in a Digital Age

Last Updated on February 23, 2021

Use It or Lose It

We are prewired for social connection. Our social skills form in childhood and adolescence: a child deprived of interpersonal experiences during critical developmental windows will grow up socially impaired.

That’s exactly what’s happening to entire generations of young people whose social life migrated to the screens.

According to psychologist Nicholas Kardaras, the author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids, normal brain development is disrupted when real-life sensory inputs are replaced by overstimulating screens. The result is children growing up with broken brains.

Kids develop areas of the brain that are being USED. When face-to-face communication is replaced by screen-based socializing, their ability to relate to other people atrophies and dies. It’s a use it or lose it scenario.

With no practice, social skills are disappearing.

The Path of Least Resistance

I once tried to talk to a teenager at a social gathering. I asked “I see you are on your phone, is everything ok?” He looked up from his phone uncomfortably, and my question prompted him to move it from front and center to his pocket. After 30 seconds of trying – and failing – to maintain eye contact and reassure me that he was fine, the phone came back out, a signal for me the conversation was over. Talking with an adult was just too awkward. Escaping back into the screen was easy.

Our brains are biologically wired to conserve energy. It’s the path of least resistance, and that’s what kids do to avoid the hard work of personal relationships – the phones make an instant escape from a social situation a readily available option.

For a shy kid it’s easy to hide behind the screen. It’s more comfortable than dealing with actual people. There is no pressure to ever come out of your shell. I was a painfully shy kid myself, and today I am grateful there were no smartphones back then. I had to overcome my timid nature to pass exams and job interviews, travel abroad, and start a family. 

If somebody had handed me a phone when I was 13, I would not have lifted my eyes from the screen to face the world.

The social skill to endure uncomfortable moments is disappearing. Kids are losing their ability to be present. 

The default action becomes: at the first sign of social discomfort I grab my phone and I am instantly out of here!

Physical presence in a challenging social situation no longer obligates them to deal with it. They can pretend to be busy staring at the phone.

As long as human civilization existed, we had to endure uncomfortable conversations in order to survive and thrive. Opting out was never an option: Homo sapiens would not have survived as a species if we did not try to get along with each other. Through trial and error, with practice, we had to develop our abilities to convince, to seduce, to persuade, to comfort. We faced rejection and embarrassment, we messed up – frequently. We made social mistakes, learned from them, and did better next time.

Growing up among our fellow humans was an apprenticeship in the craft of social skills.

But not anymore.

Socially Fragile

I noticed this perplexing trend with teenagers these days – they are really uncomfortable with traditional forms of human communication. I would try calling our teenage babysitter and she would not pick up. I would text her – she replies seconds later. She knew it was me calling, why not just pick up and talk?

Because talking in real time is stressful. Unpredictable. You have to think on your feet, instantly react to the other person’s questions and emotions. Process and express your own. Too much mental work. Too much discomfort. So much easier to text.

A friend’s daughter had been texting with the boy at her new high school for months. When school reopened after COVID-19 lockdown, her mom asked: “You must be excited to finally meet him?” “No, I am terrified! I would not know what to say to him in person!”

The side effect of online socializing on the minds of young people is their extreme emotional fragility. They are not equipped to face the real world and its hardships.

How are these future young workers going to communicate with difficult colleagues and demanding bosses, if they insist on always being “comfortable”? They are unprepared for work, unable to function in the environments of high pressure and responsibility. 

Life is not a “safe space”, and young people are setting themselves up for failure and disappointment by trying to avoid social discomfort.

What kind of leaders will these young people grow up to be? Leadership means an ability to engage in uncomfortable conversations, to give and receive feedback – not just the praise, but the constructive negative feedback as well. Leadership expert Simon Sinek gave a hilarious overview of how emotional fragility and overuse of technology diminishes relationships, and ultimately, personal and professional success of young people. And no, putting the phone face down is not more polite!

One could foresee how the inability to form functional relationships will have long-reaching consequences for the very future of humanity: if it’s Tinder instead of courtship, hook-up culture instead of commitment, how are these young people going to build families and raise children? It’s so emotionally UNCOMFORTABLE.

Many of them would not bother. The problem of overpopulation will resolve itself because our young humans do not have the social skills to deal with real spouses and parent real children. 

Humanity will die out.

Do No Harm

When the young who have their entire social universe on their phones literally do not know how to talk to others, it causes plenty of collateral damage.

Adolescent immature behavior should be erased and forgotten as kids grow up and start their adult lives. But social media digitized the most dysfunctional social dynamics of middle and high school, and stored them forever online. 

Social skills that are required to win in this space are similar to the first-person shooter video games: be ruthless and only think of yourself.

Hurt people hurt people. They manage their pain by inflicting it on others. Posting hurtful messages online. The teen who gets the last word in a cruel online spitting match, wins in the tribal warfare. These are the primitive social skills that get rewarded in the digital space. Kids try to feel better about themselves by making others feel worse, only that does not take the pain away. Everyone gets hurt: the aggressor and the victim.

What does a normal human relationship look like? People engaging with each other deeply in some form of dynamic – be it love, hate, or struggle. Think about what makes a good movie: drama or comedy happens as people interact face to face. We find these stories captivating. Yet, what we observe in the real world is humans mostly disengaged from one another, absorbed in their phones. Try to imagine Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice texting instead of talking! It would have been challenging to make a love story out of that.

But that’s how teens and young adults “hook up” – and break up. Not in person – it’s too uncomfortable to see real excitement or real tears. Hooking up has very little romance attached to it – which is tragic, especially for girls. No more holding hands, long walks, awkward silences, romantic dinners, gazing into each other’s eyes. Just texting and “sexting”. 

Love has been impoverished by its transfer to the digital world.

When they break up, they are too scared to confront their former partner. Instead, they choose to ignore and unfriend them online, a behavior called “ghosting” – which is incredibly traumatic for the receiving party. It is cruel and cowardly. It’s also the easiest option given their non-existent interpersonal skills – the path of least resistance again. They just don’t know how to have a hard conversation in person. 

So they prefer to stay “comfortable” and dismiss the emotional distress of another. Hiding behind technology instead of resolving a difficult relationship issue with empathy and compassion.

Alternatively, the parties proceed to vilify each other on social media for the whole world to see, and judge, and gossip about. I feel compassion for young people – dating online is a minefield.

One false step – and it blows up in your face. Nothing is private. Nothing is sacred.

Know Yourself

Before we engage with others, we need to know ourselves.

We need to define who we are. Which young people have no time or space to do. Their digital persona, the fake facade they present to the world on social media is not their real self. It is an artificial construct designed for social feedback and validation from their “audience”. But it takes so much effort to create and maintain, that the internal work of figuring out who they really are is neglected.

With constant digital distractions they never have to face themselves, look inward, and define their values outside of online expectations imposed on them. They have no space in which to struggle with deep thoughts, meaning of life, “why am I here” type of questions.

There is no actual person behind the façade. It’s only a shell containing shallow pieces of online trends. A young person’s very self-worth is made of fleeting snippets of feedback – some nice, some nasty. Online confetti. Noise. Digital garbage. Not substance.

Their personality is a sum of their “Likes”. 

Real value can only come from within. It’s intrinsic. Constant.

But young people do not have the time to look within. They are distracted 24/7 by their screens. They do not give themselves a chance to process their feelings and actually get to know their inner self.

Online feedback that they crave so much is the shaky foundation of their personality. It is very different from social feedback given face to face. The missing ingredient?

Empathy

Empathy is put on the backburner in our digital age. It requires reading non-verbal emotional cues in real time. Feeling what the other person feels. Young people today have a diminished capacity for empathy: communicating via texts is poor training for developing this essential human skill.

Texting does not provide immediate non-verbal feedback like a real conversation does. There is no eye contact. No reading the subtle cues of face expressions. A teen could offend a friend online and be completely oblivious to it. As more and more communication moves to the screens, those empathy muscles get exercised less and less.

Everyone is equally distracted and chooses “Likes” over compassion.

Even if the initial impulse to pick up the phone was a craving for empathy and understanding, they are immediately distracted by highly engaging content, bathing the pleasure centers of the brain in dopamine. Who would need real human connection anymore? Calling mom moves to the bottom of the priority list.

What happens when someone’s empathy is completely gone?

There is a psychiatric diagnosis for that. A bad one. A psychopath is the one who cannot understand another person’s feelings, displays persistent antisocial behavior, is extremely self-absorbed, and hurts others with no remorse. Something like 80% of school shootings are perpetrated by kids who do not have good social relationships, but are addicted to video games instead.

Are we creating a generation of psychopaths?

What We Lost

According to the Ledger of Harms from the Center of Humane Technology, social networks distract us from connecting with each other in person.

Social media cannot satisfy our need for deep social connection. Such connection happens in the moments of shared experiences. Evolutionary psychology calls this synchronicity. 

It means that sharing a fun video with friends on social media is not the same as watching it together.

Physical presence adds another important social dimension: sense of touch activates our endorphin system and facilitates human bonding. The function of endorphin hormones in our body is to inhibit pain and produce joy. Screens cannot do this, only humans can.

When I get together with my friends, I am often the only contrarian – my phone is put away. I am looking hopelessly at my friends, who are looking at their phones. A decade ago we were present. We shared a deep connection to each other. Now, forget the depth. The invasion of smartphones made our conversations fragmented and superficial. It makes me sad.

We are together, but we are not paying attention to each other: a social media update takes priority. They deprive me of their friendship. They deprive themselves of mine.

The present moment – which is the only moment we really have – has been stolen from us.

When somebody is talking to us while constantly looking at their phone, they are sending a message: “You are not important to me”. Research shows that the very presence of the phone takes away from the quality of communication. We are insulting each other, and minimizing our human connection.

This is not multitasking, this is cruelty.

But we are adults. We can master the self-control required to put away the phone and pay attention. It will be much worse for our kids – their generation never had the practice of screen-free socializing.

My kids will be surrounded by digital zombies.

And what happened to the manners?! Teens do not acknowledge an adult’s presence even if they are a guest in your home. They make no eye contact. They do not introduce themselves. They just slink past you, absorbed in their phones. Guess what – we are offended. It is rude. It is wrong.

A teenager sits down with the family for dinner and stares at the phone the whole time. Like they are not even there. They are not interested in a conversation, they are not interested in their loved ones. It took you a whole day to cook that turkey? Taken for granted. They don’t even notice what they are eating, might as well be feeding them cardboard. We love them, we want to have a relationship with them, this is supposed to be family time, the whole point of having a family!

But we cannot compete with their social media feed. Unless they put away their phone – and you put away yours.

Being connected with hundreds of people online makes us ignore people who matter most. Smartphones compromise our closest relationships. Parents and children stop paying attention to each other. We are robbing ourselves of the best source of meaning and support: the love of our family.

Creating self-inflicted emotional emptiness no amount of social media can fill.

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