Digital lives weaken real-world skills

Over seven years ago, I first signed on to the former glory that is America Online Instant Messenger (AIM). With my rhyming screenname and puppy of a buddy icon, I could now chat with all my friends from school from the comforts of my home, without having to pick up a phone, go outside or put on shoes. This instant conversation option immediately appealed to the awkward silences and easy distractions I found (and often generated) in phone conversations, and I never had to ask my mother if I could go out to play—it was all in the comfort of the gray box of my desktop computer.

As time went on, I became closer to the middle school friends I still consider friends today through endless chat rooms to get us through our insufferable eighth grade science projects. The Internet began to evolve (or, in some cases, devolve) into social media, as I picked up accounts on LiveJournal, MySpace, Blogspot, Facebook and more, which all had chat and message functions that facilitated conversation and whose speed was driven by my then-masterful 110 words per minute (WPM).

When I grew old enough to have a cell phone, I began to rely heavily on texting, still skillfully avoiding phone conversations and face-to-face interactions. I eventually hit a point of no longer understanding how to use Facebook chat, and at the time, I had a chronic distaste for the distraction of a chat option in my Gmail inbox. Still, texting somehow seemed preferable to me—I could spend as long as I wanted crafting my questions and chalk my response delays up to grabbing dinner or helping my mother.

I thought I was so clever and resourceful.

High school demanded my conversational skill for about eight to nine hours per day. (Un)fortunately, college forces me to interact with people from the moment I wake up until even after I fall asleep, as I occasionally answer questions from outside my door in my sleep. But now, instead of just exchanging rage comics and hilariously long acronyms, communication now actually involves speaking aloud, pronouncing words I mostly thought about in my head and processing body language. How emotionally and mentally taxing!

In making this transition, but still spending copious amounts of time online, I realized that, for many, internet personalities are pretty different from the personalities people give off in real life. Not to say that they have multiple personalities by any means, but it is significantly easier to let down their barriers and to say whatever comes to mind when they have a plastic screen and a wireless connection between them. But when air is the only physical barrier between two people, the dynamics of a conversation become entirely different, often strained.

Unfortunately, I know that I am the master of this. The 500 words you’ve (hopefully) read so far sound nothing like what’s going on my head, which, in turn, sounds nothing like what I would say aloud about this topic. Of course, the occasional “LOL” manages to slip into my everyday conversation, and sometimes I exchange descriptions of funny Internet pictures and videos to get a point across. Still, the core of my conversational choices and my willingness to reveal personal details are wildly different.

Another realization I came across was our society’s preference for electronic communications over face-to-face interaction. For some reason, I find it logical to type out a long grammatically correct email or text message with several questions and to then wait until the recipient chooses to respond at his or her convenience. It rarely occurs to me to simply find the person to have the conversation right then and there.

What’s more is that, even though I have developed a better understanding of the perils of solely communicating via the Internet and texting, the next generation is not getting any better. My days of winter break were often found in lines behind kids half my age tapping away at their iPhones and Blackberry phones. They didn’t talk to their parents. They didn’t make conversation with the cashier. They didn’t so much as glance up to say, “Excuse me.”

Basically, if it wasn’t happening in the palm of their hand, it was like it wasn’t happening at all.

Ultimately, if any of these forms of conversational confusion or social stumblings affect you, perhaps you should put away your phone or close your laptop and see what people have to offer your personal growth.