I made the mistake of e-mailing my friend Lynn about an upcoming event when I should have texted her. She always answers her texts more quickly than she ever responds to e-mails. This happens to be the complete opposite of my friend Kathy, who won't text but checks her e-mail several times a day. My cousin Joanne returns a phone message quickly, but can let a week go by before answering her e-mail. Then there is my oldest daughter, who just looks at her phone log and calls me after she notices my missed call.
Technology has created yet another layer of social coordination for my already overtaxed prefrontal cortex. Now I have to remember which method to use with everyone if I want to stay connected. No wonder this generation is sometimes called "Generation Stressed."
With all the different ways to connect, you would think we would be feeling much closer to loved ones and more secure than ever. Not so, according to Dr. Edward Hallowell, the author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!Hallowell reported, "While we have been miraculously connecting electronically over the past 15 years, we have also quietly and unintentionally been disconnecting interpersonally."
While sitting in the dentist's office the other day waiting for my daughter to finish her appointment, I was amazed to see that every person sitting there was doing something with their phone. No one was talking to the person next to them or even reading a magazine. Granted, most of the people waiting were probably under the age of 30, but it still surprised me to see how all of them chose to fill those spare moments.
You begin to question how much person-to-person contact can be going on if everyone is so committed to electronic devices. If the research about women is correct, we regularly require some "tending and befriending time" to feel safe and secure. The data is still out on whether or not texting time counts. There's a measurable biological reaction - the production of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that research suggests is important in bonding and maternal behavior - when we feel safe and secure. Will our bodies be able to adapt quickly enough to these new modes of communication to produce enough oxytocin?
At the same time, what's the cost of not keeping up? Some of my colleagues brag that they have not learned to text and have no intention of doing so. But if their children use that as a major form of communication, what message are they really sending to their kids? Have they abandoned their youth at the threshold of this new horizon without sufficient parental guidance or adult wisdom?
Then there are the parents who use a cell phone as an electronic leash on their young adult. The message here is, "I need to know where you are and what you are doing at every moment because the world is not safe and you might need my help at any moment."
Perhaps it really is time for the kind of "Digital Citizenship Classes" that my colleague Annette speaks about, where we can learn to handle technology in healthy, respectful ways. I sat at an event the other night trying to focus on the speaker while the woman behind me chatted on her cell phone.
Don't get me wrong: I have been known to panic when I can't find my cell phone. But if I don't want to hear some stranger's phone chatter at Publix, I can only imagine how that person's toddler feels as they sit in the cart, begging for their parents' distracted attention. Isn't there something to be said for focusing on one task at a time? Or are we so stretched that we cannot allow ourselves even that simple luxury anymore?
Just don't blame me if I don't answer your text right away because I was busy checking my e-mail. Next time, try just calling me.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She is co-author of "Launching: Parenting to College and Beyond," a handbook for parents of adolescents and young adults. She can be reached at (727) 418-7882.