Mobile devices are destroying human conversation. Get over it.

human conversation

In this post, I am going to provide some extremely weird and unexpected advice, but I need to scare the crap out of you first.

Nearly every day, there are new warnings about exposing kids to too much “screen time.” Research shows excessive screen time may lead to

… to name a few concerns. The ubiqituous mobile device has replaced face-to-face human conversation, upended family dynamics, and challenged traditional views of relationships.

I recently had the opportunity to hear author and academic Sherry Turkle talk about her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In her speech, she lamented the passing of our conversation culture, drawing comparisons to the good old days when author Henry David Thoreau said he needed three chairs in his cabin, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

Turkle pointed to research proving that the mere presence of a mobile device was a deterrent to conversation.

She issued an passioned call to a return to human conversation. Supported by research and reason, she pleaded with the audience to wake up and return to a day of human conversation.

And as she presented this practical appeal, here’s what was running through my head. “You need to get over it.”

We’re not going back

Instead of dwelling on how things used to be, we need to embrace the reality of now. No matter how worried we are about the societal implications of mobile use, most families are never going back to the days of screen-free dinner time conversation about politics and books.

Of course parents need to take steps to limit how and when mobile devices are used. But I could make an argument that we should also ENCOURAGE the frequent and intelligent use of mobile devices. Sound weird? Consider:

  • A recent report stated that screen time is an established norm in many youth cultures, presenting significant barriers to behavior change. There is severe pressure on teens to fit in and be accepted (remember those days?). If you take some draconian and fearful approach to limiting screen time, you may be also creating additional pressure to your teen’s socialization and development.
  • Turkle issues a plea for a return to conversation. But today, text messaging and Snapchat posts ARE THE CONVERSATION. This is the new dialogue, and more important, it is also the future dialogue. Embrace that.
  • Imagine the workplace of the near future where young employees have been conditioned for decades to manage relationships, conversations, and conflict via short text messages. The ability to manage these connections effectively will be a competitive advantage. I know it sounds weird but people who DON’T use mobile devices a lot may be lost in the work world of the next few years.
  • And even though parents recognize the importance of reducing youth screen time, increasingly, they are unable to model and promote human engagement themselves. We like constant screen access, too, don’t we?

This is just the beginning

Like Turkle, my heart thumps “Oh no” when I envision the coming cold, digital world. Look at what we’re losing.

But my head can also recognize that this ubiqiuitous glowing screen is our drug, our friend, our psychological safety net … and we’re never putting it down.

In fact, the move away from human conversation will soon be getting worse. Much, much worse.

A major economic force of our world is attention. Attention sells ads, absorbs data time, sells power-ups for popular games. Do you think these economic forces will conspire to make the mobile device more addictive, or less addictive, in the future? We are just at the very beginning of the mobile era.

In the near future, Facebook will be rolling out amazing new consumer applications for its Oculus technology. We will be immersed in a breath-taking 3D world of conversations, sex, entertainment, and games. There is no question that within a few years, we will be spending most of our day — in business and at home — with a headset wrapped around our cranium.


So if you’re concerned about the fact that you can’t seem to put your mobile device down … well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And here’s my advice: Deal with it. There’s no going back.

Human conversation is a luxury

The age of face-to-face human conversation is waning. There may be a little backlash here and there (the resistance movement), but in the end, the intoxication of connection, conformity, and FOMO will win, as it always has.

There is a little voice inside of me cheering on Sherry Turkle and her call for a return to conversation. I thrive on close, deep conversations with friends.

But I also know Dr. Turkle is merely shouting into the face of a hurricane. Her voice, no matter how principled and correct, will make little difference in this gale.

The hurricane will win. The hurricane will permanently alter everything in its path. The hurricane may even make us forget what it meant to be really human.

And we will just have to find new ways to adapt, adopt, and deal with the destruction.

Your thoughts?

mark schaefer

Top illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Pabak Sarkar

Second illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Sergey Galyonkin

Book link is affiliate link.

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