Thinking Out Loud

Cyber Communication

Without fail, I am asked to comment on internet communication—whether it’s during a workshop, book talk, or other speaking venue. Because I am not tech savvy, I’ve been cautious about my entry points into the world of cyber communication, and like many I can sound old-fashioned, as in “What’s wrong with talking to someone face to face or picking up the phone and calling.” I don’t intend here to offer a comprehensive evaluation of internet communication, but I will tell you my personal experience and share stories that can help give perspective to this complex topic.

Recently National Public Radio had a story about a father and son (approximately age 13) who had typical communication patterns, especially with after-school conversation. “How was school today?” “Oh, fine.” End of conversation. The father, of course, tried to be more creative in his approach but with the same results. The boy would go to his room and get on the computer, and his dad (who worked at home) did the same.

Then one day, one of them sent an instant message (IM) to the other asking a simple question . . . and from that developed a pattern of communication. Each day, they would have a quiet ride home from school, go to their respective rooms, and begin an IM session—catching up on the day, getting organized for the evening and the next day, and sharing pleasantries. It became a ritual both looked forward to.

Some might grumble about this and insist that they find a way to talk face to face after school, but if you’ve ever had a thirteen-year-old boy and tried to have regular after-school discussions . . . well you know where I’m going with that comment. I was moved by this account. The connection, warmth, and continuity the father and son experienced were precious.

Here’s another story that came my way recently. A young couple who were struggling with their relationship began instant messaging after having a squabble earlier in the day. Frequently, I counsel people to be very cautious handling emotionally sensitive issues over the internet. I’ve seen too many examples of how badly this can go. In this situation, however, it was very effective because both people intuitively respected the limitations of the medium. Specifically, they recognized the need to define terms carefully, to not make any assumptions, and to keep it short. Also, they were not distracted by seeing each other’s reaction, which in this case helped them focus on the intended message. In short, they were able to communicate more effectively, which continued in their face-to-face follow-up.

The internet is a tool with many uses for communication. It is not inherently good or bad—it depends on the individuals involved and how they use it. Except for an occasional e-mail, for many it doesn’t work at all; for others it might be useful in certain situations. Remember, it is a choice and you are free to decide whether or not you wish to participate in any venue.

All of my nephews and nieces have Facebook pages and post pictures and announce events in their lives, both big and small. I can interact with them in this medium and maintain some continuity that I would not otherwise have. It is friendly, warm, mostly superficial, and it feels good. They all live at a great distance, so I have more contact with them now than I have for many years. Simply, we enjoy the connection.

I also have occasional e-mail correspondence with people who live at a distance and who I will likely never see in my lifetime. They are old friends who find it easy to write an e-mail letter once in a while. Mostly the messages are newsy, but sometimes there is something important to say to someone who has known you from childhood.

There’s no doubt that many people spend too much time on the internet in very superficial and unhealthy ways. That is unfortunate, but it has nothing inherently to do with e-mail, Facebook, or IM. It has to do with misusing the tools, not knowing how to develop other means of communication, or struggling with how to conduct relationships. Those are bigger problems.

I am very concerned that the average kid spends 7.5 hours daily using some kind of electronic device—that is up from 5.5 hours five years ago. It’s a very modern and difficult problem that I think is unhealthy and frequently work with parents to help them establish more balance in their kid’s lives. This lack of balance is also evident in the lives of many adults.

The telephone, radio, television, video game, internet, cell phone, MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook at one time have all been accused of undermining human contact and hurting family relationships. Each has its up and down sides, and of course excess use is unhealthy. These devices and formats are not going away and new ones will come along at a rapid clip. Rather than demonizing them, discover how to use the tools in a balanced and healthy way. They all have the potential to benefit connection and communication. Over the years, many have chosen not to have a telephone, television or computer.  Similarly, just because the modern communication structures exist, they are not requirements in your relational world.  There is nothing wrong with being old fashioned or simply deciding what works or doesn’t work for you.

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