Are our kids losing their in-person communication skills?

Tech Talk Tuesday #89: Are our kids losing their in-person communication skills?

Last week I was talking with a counselor at a high school who told me about how the students immediately go on their cell phones when they leave classrooms and enter the hallways, and that she was “...sure they are all losing their ability to communicate.” When people have said this to me, I think they are often surprised by my response which is:

“I can relate to your concerns—but let’s also think about Aunt Jane or Uncle Joe who didn’t grow up with much screen time but, boy, do they struggle with effective communication.”

However, I don’t mean to say that a preponderance of screen time is not impacting kids’ communication skills—I believe there surely are effects. Sadly, there is practically no published research that compares communication skills of today’s youth to those of youth in the past. I would love to see data for such things as frequency of eye contact, ability to confidently talk to people of all ages, and confidence in expressing uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.

I am a big believer that communication is a teachable skill. We can all learn more productive ways to handle in-person interactions.  During my medicine residency, mentors taught me how to navigate a multitude of communication challenges—such as with people from different cultures and end of life discussions. I realized there was an entire science of communication and I was eager to learn more—so after my residency, I went on to do a Fellowship in Medical Ethics focusing specifically on doctor-patient communication.  

Let’s use this week’s Tech Talk Tuesday time to discuss communication skills with our children or students. I want to share a communication tool that comes from a field of therapy, called DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), created by Marsha Linehan. It’s called DEAR, and it is great to use when anyone is about to ask for something that they are nervous about.

D = Describe the situation   
E = Emotion you are feeling about the issue
A = Ask for what you want
R = Reiterate how it will benefit both of you if this can be worked out

My son, Chase and I talked today about DEAR, and he gave me an example of a friend he wants to try DEAR on this week. The friend is frequently off in the corner on his phone when the two of them are together. This is what Chase plans to do:

D = Describe to his friend that he sees him checking his phone much of the time they are together
E = Because of this Chase feels distant (the emotion) when they hang out
A = Ask him if they could try hanging out just one day with their phones entirely out of view
R = Reiterate that he thinks they would both have a better time together

So for TTT let's talk about communication. How do we improve our face-to-face communication skills? Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

  • Who do you know that is an excellent communicator? What makes them so good?
  • What do you do when you are experiencing conflict with a person? Do you communicate about it only online, or both online and offline?
  • Do you think people can learn to be better communicators?
  • Can everyone try to do DEAR once in the coming week—perhaps with another family member so that it feels less awkward trying it?

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