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Lost in Translation: Why Technology Isn't Always a Good Thing

"I think that as we shifted toward technology, we encouraged a disconnection from each other in ways that are hard to teach," says columnist and pediatrician Dr. Molly O'Shea.

I'm sitting outside on a glorious, unusually warm March day, writing.

When I was a kid, the only options for writing were pen and paper. My only options for reading were books or newspapers held in my hand. The only option to communicate with my friends was to go over to their house or call them on the phone.

How times have changed.

Now, I never use a pen and paper, and to be frank, it feels foreign when I do. I still read some books the old fashioned way and get the Sunday New York Times, but otherwise, my reading is all done digitally. I text or email rather than call most of the time and spend a tremendous amount of time in front of some device or another.

My kids, though, are even more integrated with technology, and even as a geek girl and techno junkie, I have worried over time that something will get lost in the translation.

And apparently, my fear is justified.

A digital misunderstanding

Yesterday, my daughter and I were texting – our usual way of communicating, sometimes even when we are both in the house – and she sent a series of texts that came off as rude and disrespectful. When she announced (rather than asked) that she was staying after school, from 2:15-9:30 p.m. for a school event, I was a bit taken aback.

She often stays after school for things and sometimes will be there until just past dinnertime, but this was later than usual. I texted to ask when the event started since I found it hard to believe that there would be any event that lasted over 7 hours. Here was the text string beginning at 4:45 after she told me what the event was:

Her: I’ll be home by 9:30

Me: When does it start?

Her: You’re not coming so I’m not telling you.

Me: If you’re going to be like that you’ll come home. What time does it start?

Her: 6:30. But I have to be there at 6. And I’ll be out getting people’s outfits and makeup done until then.

Me: I really don’t appreciate your disrespectful attitude. And your announcing rather than asking about staying the whole time. And the last minute notice.

Her: I apologize but we didn’t know we had a team until yesterday. I’m the club president so I need to be here.

Me: You can stay but there will be a consequence for your disrespectful attitude though which we will discuss later.

My daughter did stay at the event and marshaled her team, and when she got home, we could for the first time talk about what happened face to face. I told her how disappointed I was that she had taken such a flippant tone with me and that for the next two nights she would be have to relinquish her phone and computer to me.

She quietly complied but told me that she didn’t mean to be sassy. Instead, she said she was trying to explain that since families weren’t coming to this event, she didn’t think I needed to know what time it started. Hmm.

It seems that with the shorthand of texting – and without the ability to see and hear the other person – things get lost in translation. I felt slighted and disrespected and she felt a bit unduly punished for her word choice. Increasingly I feel that our people and conversation skills are fading as virtual contact replaces talking.

The Digital Natives

An article I read recently highlights how this integration with technology is causing measurable differences in young peoples’ ability to read non-verbal cues.

"Digital natives" are people who have grown up with technology as an integrated part of their life from the get go.

We've all seen the toddler who can barely walk unlock an iPhone and start tapping for an app. We've all seen children who at 3 are more comfortable with using a mouse than we are and who at 16 can code and write programs we can't even conceive of.

It's not all a bad thing, of course, but there is growing evidence that these digital natives are not as adept at reading people – a huge, important part of life in work and relationships. Their ability to read non-verbal cues is rudimentary and their ability to appear engaged by making eye contact and giving other non-verbal cues themselves is severely limited.

Learning to communicate again

I know that I have for a whole host of reasons, and with the integration of technology at school, most kids often aren't getting much of a break, even there. How are we as a society going to adapt to this shift in awareness? Will we have classes in high school, not for typing or basic computer skills like I had to take, but instead classes to teach how to interact with each other to show attention, respect and interest in others?

I think that as we shifted toward technology, we encouraged a disconnection from each other in ways that are hard to teach. Perhaps recognizing this side effect of technology use will allow us to craft a solution.

Whether it's turning off devices and having actual conversations or even using technology through video connections to forward relationships in a more 'face to face' way, adapting to the change and compensating for it are essential to ensure that real connections between people aren't going to go the way of the buffalo.

Jen Anesi April 03, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Technology definitely has its place, but I agree that we often rely too heavily on it, and I've also replaced most verbal interaction with texting and email. It's not good! After reading this, I think I'll have to work extra hard to make sure my son knows how to communicate effectively in the real world – not just the digital world. Thanks, Dr. Molly!
marcela April 04, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Not only with kids, but also with ESL 50+ speakers,such as I (me?). If I'm unsure when I speak or write, just imagine what it feels like when texting or tweeting... or writing comments.

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