“What did you do at school today?” asks Dad.
“Not a lot” came the reply.
That’s not true. In fact, at that very moment she was sending a rather lengthy text to her friend Amy. “Quite a lot” was closer to the truth, and she was busily filling Amy in on Josh’s latest attempt at throwing uncapped glue sticks at the classroom ceiling.
Would Dad find that funny? Could she even tell it in a way that would make him laugh? Probably not. She’d get tangled up in her words, and it would just get awkward. “Yeah, not a lot”.
The last year has accelerated our move from face-to-face conversations to texting. Suddenly we have more control over the portrayal of ourselves, drafting and redrafting. We make ourselves sound cooler, funnier, or even just more articulate.
We prefer our smooth, shiny phone screens to the friction of face-to-face conversation
The friction of face-to-face conversation
Over the last year, I’d forgotten the friction that there is in a face-to-face conversation. The awkward silences working out what to say next, the stumbling over words and the desperate feeling of needing to check my phone. Holding eye contact now feels weird, and I don’t really know where to look when talking to a group of people. For the last year, I have just had to address a screen – I haven’t had to look around at each person.
We have all felt the impact of lockdown on our social lives. But what about those who are still developing their social skills, still trying to get comfortable in their skin, and still finding their voice?
The teenage years are the final step before adulthood. A key part is growing in self-expression and confidence and building those essential social skills. Whilst so desperately wanting to keep friendships going throughout lockdown, so much of those social skills have become more about online messaging and less about expressing themselves verbally to the person in front of them.
The majority of children find it easier to text a friend than chat in person
I help run the youth group at my local church, and a few weeks ago I asked “how many of you feel you spent more time at a screen over the last year, apart from schoolwork?” They all put their hands up. I then asked them “do you now find it easier to text a friend or chat with in person?” The majority put their hands up.
And I feel that! I feel their pain. And so, as our young people settle back into school, and lockdown eases further over the next few months, how can we help them get back on track and enjoy the friction of face-to-face conversation?
Checking our own habits
I think the first thing we need to do is check our own habits. The younger generation watches us carefully.
What conversation was killed when I got my phone out?
How much time do I spend on my phone? How much time to I need to spend on my phone? Do I need to take my phone to bed with me at night? Do I need to check it first thing in the morning?
Most smartphones can tell you how much you spend on your phone, they can tell you which apps you use the most and for how long each day. I was horrified when I looked!
What conversations am I killing by getting my phone out?
Do I need to have it next to me at mealtimes?
Can that email wait?
I used to think that because I’m a leader at youth group it’s fine to check my phone and quickly reply to a text. But what does that say to the youth who was just asked to put their phone away? What conversation was killed when I got my phone out?
By getting my phone out, I was telling the other people in the room that I would rather be somewhere else. Sure, that might not be my intention, but that is very much the message that is received!
If we’re wanting our youth, our children, to cut back on-screen time we must check our own habits first.
Tips for increasing conversation
Having thought about our own phone usage, and maybe cut back, how can we help our families do the same?
There are obvious safeguards that need to be in place when children have their own phones and there are lots of parental apps out there to help with that. Google has developed Family Link which is completely free, has lots of helpful features and is compatible with Android and iOS. There are others which you have to pay for, but they do include more features (https://www.techradar.com/uk/best/parental-control).
Here are some other small changes you could make in family life to help your teenagers get back on track, building interpersonal skills:
- Mark out time in the day that is phone free. Dinnertime can be a great time to encourage face-to-face conversation and give space for your teens to talk.
- Pick up old habits. Before lockdown, it was second nature to invite people over. If it is safe for you to do so, have you children’s friends over. Try to eat together if it’s around a mealtime.
- Plan how you will monitor phone usage to ensure their phone time is healthy. There are lots of apps and software that can help, but talk about it with your children too – having a phone is a responsibility that you are trusting them with.
- Do things as a family. Create time where none of you will want to check your phones! Having a morning out over the weekend, going for a walk or for a coffee encourages conversations and keeps phones in pockets.
- Chat with your children about what they are looking at. This helps them verbalise the information they’re digesting. If they have found a funny video, watch it with them. Ask them what they like doing on their phone. Let phones be a conversation starter and not a conversation killer.
Further reading: 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke