Digital intimacy is no panacea

February 28, 2013
Sherry Turkle

Arwen Thysse, a Grade 12 student at M.E.
LaZerte High School, in Edmonton, and her
cat, Freya van Thyssenhof...
—Photo by Yuet Chan

Listening to what young people miss may teach us what they need

The following excerpt is from Alone Together—Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle, published by Basic Books, 2011. The excerpt (pages 265–268) is reprinted with permission of the author and Basic Books.

Alone Together is the result of 15 years of exploring the influence of digital technology on our lives and is based on hundreds of interviews with children, youth and adults. Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist.

The nostalgia of the young

Cliff, a Silver Academy sophomore, talks about whether it will ever be possible to get back to what came “before texting.” Cliff says that he gets so caught up in the back-and-forth of texting that he ends up wasting time in what he thinks are superficial communications “just to get back.” I ask him about when, in his view, there might be less pressure for an immediate response. Cliff thinks of two: “Your class has a test. Or you lost your signal.” Conspicuously absent—you are doing something else, thinking something else, with someone else.

We have seen young people walk the halls of their schools composing messages to online acquaintances they will never meet. We have seen them feeling more alive when connected, then disoriented and alone when they leave their screens. Some live more than half their waking hours in virtual places. But they also talk wistfully about letters, face-to-face meetings, and the privacy of pay phones. Tethered selves, they try to conjure a future different from the one they see coming by building on a past they never knew. In it, they have time alone, with nature, with each other, and with their families.

Texting is too seductive. It makes a promise that generates its own demand.1 The promise: the person you text will receive the message within seconds, and whether or not he or she is “free,” the recipient will be able to see the text. The demand: when you receive the text, you will attend to it (during class, this might mean a glance down at a silenced phone) and respond as soon as possible. Cliff says that in his circle of friends, that means, “ten minutes, maximum.”

I will tell you how it is at this school. If something comes in on your phone and it’s text, you feel you have to respond. They obviously know you got it. With IM, you can claim you weren’t at the computer or you lost your Internet connection and all that. But if it’s text, there’s no way you didn’t get it. Few people look down at their phone and then walk away from it. Few people do that. It really doesn’t happen … Texting is pressure. I don’t always feel like communicating. Who says that we always have to be ready to communicate?

Indeed, who says? Listening to what young people miss may teach us what they need. They need attention.

Attention

Teenagers know that when they communicate by instant message, they compete with many other windows on a computer screen. They know how little attention they are getting because they know how little they give to the instant messages they receive. One sophomore girl at Branscomb High School compares instant messaging to being on “cruise control” or “automatic pilot.” Your attention is elsewhere. A Branscomb senior says, “Even if I give my full attention to the person I am IMing … they are not giving full attention to me.” The first thing he does when he makes a call is to gauge whether the person on the other end “is there just for me.” This is one advantage of a call. When you text or instant-message, you have no way to tell how much else is going on for the person writing you. He or she could also be on the phone, doing homework, watching TV, or in the midst of other online conversations.

Longed for here is the pleasure of full attention, coveted and rare. These teenagers grew up with parents who talked on their cell phones and scrolled through messages as they walked to the playground. Parents texted with one hand and pushed swings with the other. They glanced up at the jungle gym as they made calls. Teenagers describe childhoods with parents who were on their mobile devices while driving them to school or as the family watched Disney videos. A college freshman jokes that her father read her the Harry Potter novels, periodically interrupted by his BlackBerry. BlackBerries and laptops came on family vacations. Weekends in the country were cut short if there was no Internet service in the hotels. Lon, 18, says when that happened, his father “called it a day.” He packed up the family and went home, back to a world of connections.

From the youngest ages, these teenagers have associated technology with shared attention. Phones, before they become an essential element in a child’s own life, were the competition, one that children didn’t necessarily feel they could best. And things are not so different in the teenage years. Nick, 17, says, “My parents text while we eat. I’m used to it. My dad says it is better than his having to be at the office. I say, ‘Well, maybe it could just be a short meal.’ But my mom, she wants long meals. To get a long meal with a lot of courses, she has to allow the BlackBerry.” Things seem at a stalemate.

Children have always competed for their parents’ attention, but this generation has experienced something new. Previously, children had to deal with parents being off with work, friends, or each other. Today, children contend with parents who are physically close, tantalizingly so, but mentally elsewhere. Hannah’s description of how her mother doesn’t look up from her BlackBerry to say hello when she picks her up at school highlights a painful contrast between the woman who goes to the trouble to fetch her daughter and the woman who cannot look up from her screen. Lon says he liked it better when his father had a desktop computer. It meant that he worked from a specific place. Now his father sits next to him on the couch watching a football game but is on his BlackBerry as well. Because they are physically close, his father’s turn to the BlackBerry seems particularly excluding.

Miguel, a Hadley senior, says that having his father scroll through his BlackBerry messages during television sports is “stressful” but adds “not the kind that really kills you. More the kind that always bothers you.” Miguel says it is hard for him to ask his father to put the BlackBerry away because he himself texts when he is with his father in the car. “He has a son who texts, so why shouldn’t he?” But when parents see their children checking their mobile devices and thus feel permission to use their own, the adults are discounting a crucial asymmetry. The multitasking teenagers are just that, teenagers. They want and need adult attention. They are willing to admit that they are often relieved when a parent asks them to put away the phone and sit down to talk. But for parents to make this request—and this no longer goes without saying—they have to put down their phones as well. Sometimes it is children (often in alliance with their mothers) who find a way to insist that dinner time be a time for talking—time away from the smartphone. But habits of shared attention die hard.

It is commonplace to hear children, from the age of eight through the teen years, describe the frustration of trying to get the attention of their multitasking parents. Now, these same children are insecure about having each other’s attention. At night, as they sit at computer screens, any messages sent or received share “mind space” with shopping, uploading photos, updating Facebook, watching videos, playing games and doing homework. One high school senior describes evening “conversation” at his machine: “When I’m IMing, I can be talking to three different people at the same time and listening to music and also looking at a website.” During the day, prime time for phone texting, communications happen as teenagers are on their way from one thing to another. Teenagers talk about what they are losing when they text: how someone stands, the tone of their voice, the expression on their face, “the things your eyes and ears tell you,” as one 18-year-old puts it.

Texting has evolved into a space for confessions, breakups, and declarations of love. There is something to celebrate here: a new, exuberant space for friendship, a way to blow a virtual kiss. But there is a price. All matters—some delicate, some not—are crammed into a medium that quickly communicates a state but is not well suited for opening a dialogue about complexity of feeling. Texting—interrupted by bad reception, incoming calls, and other text messages (not to mention the fact that it all goes on in the presence of other people)—can compromise the intimacy it promises. There is a difference, says an 18-year-old boy, “between someone laughing and someone writing that they’re laughing.” He says, “My friends are so used to giving their phones all the attention … they forget that people are still there to give attention to.”

Footnote

1 This recalls how French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan talks about the analytic encounter. The offer to listen creates a demand to be heard. “In short, I have succeeded in doing what in the field of ordinary commerce people would dearly like to be able to do with such ease: with supply, I have created demand.” See Jacques Lacan, “The Direction of the Treatment with the Principles of Power,” Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 254. For discussion of Lacan and the “intransitive demand,” see Sherry Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politic: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution (1978; New York: Guilford Press, 1992), 85.