This year on Bell Let’s Talk Day, I’m in Nanaimo, BC. It’s hard not to reflect on the fact that this beautiful spot in Canada arguably has a winter climate that supports mental health (temperatures above 0 degrees, no snow, and I actually saw some flowers when I was walking by the waterfront on Sunday).
This year, the relationships among social wellness, digital technology, leisure, and mental health are at the forefront of my mind. I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. As I’ve read what she’s learned from talking to people about digital technology, the implications for our social wellness were troublesome to me and worthy of some consideration.
Social wellness is the dimension of wellness that focuses on our interactions with others. Having positive, meaningful relationships with others; using good communication in our interactions; having a support network of friends and family; and respecting yourself and others all contribute to our social wellness. Social wellness, in turn, supports our mental health. For example, positive social interactions can help us manage and prevent depression (Cruwys et al., 2013) and the support networks we have and even our perception that we have support can buffer stress (Cohen & Willis, 1985). Our positive relationships with others also contribute to our feelings of self worth, our self-esteem, and our self-confidence.
But how might our social wellness (and therefore, our mental health) be affected by trends in how we communicate and interact?
“I’d Rather Text than Talk”
The popularity of mobile communication devices (MCDs) has offered a way of communicating with others that does not require conversation. Turkle (2015) highlights that there is currently a generation of young people who indicate that they would rather text their friends or email than have a conversation. For perspective on the growth of text messages, Pew Institute survey results revealed that in 2000, 14 billion text messages were sent in the US. In 2010, this number had exploded to 188 billion. While this seems to be a particular trend among young people, Turkle also found that in the workplace, some adults choose to email colleagues rather than walking down the hall and having a conversation. Why? Part of it seems to be that we enjoy having control over what we communicate when we text or email. We can edit and perfect our messages before hitting “send”. In other ways, it is perceived as more efficient or convenient – it is quicker to send a text or an email than it is to engage in a longer interaction than we wanted or needed (again, it is about control).
But what is lost when we opt for texting over talking or emailing over conversation? The biggest concern seems to around the impact on the digital natives – those who have grown up with technology and MCDs. Developmental psychologists express concern that this form of communication is likely to most greatly impact young people (e.g., tweens and teens) because they have not yet fully developed their interpersonal skills. Turkle (2015) argues that conversations provide opportunities to think, reason and self-reflect – skills she says are the bedrock of social development. Without conversation, the opportunity to develop empathy, interpret nonverbal cues (facial expression, body language) and understand emotional subtleties may also be lost. For example, Turkle talks about the difference between saying “I’m sorry” via text and apologizing in person when you might see, through nonverbal cues, the pain and discomfort you have caused another person. It is this kind of face-to-face experience with the “messiness” of human relationships that leads to better relationships and social wellness.
I should note that while Turkle (2015) argues that the little bits and pieces of text messages do not add up to a conversation, others argue that the increased contact that occurs through text messaging could be helpful to friendship development (Hartley-Brewer, 2009). Personally, I need to see more evidence that quantity of interaction trumps quality of interaction in terms of social wellness and associated outcomes.
Having Lunch or Coffee – The Phone on the Table
In Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle (2015) discusses what she learned through her research about how phones can influence our social interactions. “Studies show the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about. If we might be interrupted, we keep conversations light, on topics of little controversy or consequence. And conversations with phones on the landscape block empathic connection. If two people are speaking and there is a phone on a nearby desk, each feels less connected to the other than when there is no phone present. Even a silent phone disconnects us” (p. 21). One of her participants explained that if, during a conversation, someone picks up his/her phone, it is a sign that the conversation is getting too serious or heavy and that it needs to be lightened up. I cannot help but wonder how this impacts one’s perception of support or one’s ability to access support. If the possibility of interruption is ever present, are we as likely to enter into conversations in which we are vulnerable – conversations which can result in two people have a better understanding of each other and a closer, deeper relationship? Or, do we keep the conversation on a more superficial level? If conversations occur only on a superficial level, do we access the same positive outcomes of social interaction as we do when we have those conversations in which people are sharing themselves – their fears, their disappointments, or their hopes and plans. How do we ask for support from people in our network during a difficult time (an action related to social wellness), if we cannot have a deeper conversation about what is going on with us and what we need?
Certainly, superficial conversations can happen anywhere at anytime, but the idea that an object on the landscape (as Turkle refers to it) could block opportunities for more meaningful conversations and the deepening of relationships is something we might want to pay attention to. Arguably, this practice could impact our social wellness.
I wonder how important and desirable group gatherings in which the norm is for the phone to stay in your bag or pocket might become. Might those leisure experiences in which this is the norm offer the best opportunity for having the social interactions that support our mental health? Should we be seeking out yarn parties, sporting activities, or a book club – gatherings where the focus is on engaging in something together and where conversation is a natural part of the interaction if we want to develop those close social ties or deepen the ones we have? Or, is it unrealistic to think that there are any sacred spaces in which the conversation will not be interrupted by someone not present?
Expectations and Stresses of Modern Friendship Lived Online
For young people in particular, the trend or practice seems to be that when they are together, they are inattentive (e.g., on their phones…together, but not really together). However, when they are apart, Turkle describes them as hyper vigilent. Some of the young people she talked to as part of her research expressed feeling stressed when they must go long periods without their phone. This was in part because there is an expectation that if a friend sends a text, you will respond within a few minutes. Missing out or being left out of something is a big deal for teenagers in particular. Even at night, young people expressed worrying about this and many indicated sleeping with their phones right beside them or in their beds so that they would know if a text came in.
With these expectations and the stresses that seem to accompany them, I wonder how “present” youth can be in their activities that separate them from their phones and their online social lives. As someone who studies leisure, I have concerns about how these expectations affect someone’s enjoyment of or engagement in what they are participating in at the time. Leisure offers excellent opportunities to meet people with shared interests and to develop friendships. But does the concern about what is happening online affect one’s ability to develop and enjoy meaningful face-to-face relationships when the opportunities exist?
The CNN Documentary #Being13 that was aired in October of 2015 demonstrated this fear of missing out when teens in that study estimated checking their phones up to 200 times during the school day. They appeared to be anxious – worried that they might be left out of something. They might see a photo of some of their friends hanging out without them or at a party they were not invited to. One teen explained that she was only as good as her latest selfie and status post on Instagram. Apparently, popularity and belonging fluctuated based on these factors. This documentary left me with the impression that social wellness, for these youth, was very unstable. Friends who intentionally exclude you from a party and post photos they know you will see – that doesn’t seem like a healthy peer relationship. Or, feeling left out and hurt because you see two of your friends hanging out without you – that suggests youth may be quite vulnerable as social lives are lived online.
Social wellness occurs when relationships are positive and healthy – you feel good about the relationships you are in. It occurs when you have a support network – people you know you can count on to help you when you need them. It seems that as social lives are lived as much online as they are face-to-face, developing social wellness may be more complex and challenging to achieve. And if social wellness is low or unstable, it will have an impact on mental health.
Because of the important links between social wellness and mental health, I think it will become increasingly important to be aware of our digital interactions, the role that our devices play in our relationships, and how they may interfere with us achieving and maintaining a high degree of social wellness.
Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310–357.
Cruwys, T., Dingle, G. A., Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., & Morton, T. A. (2013). Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse. Social Science & Medicine, 98, 179-186.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in the digital age. New York: Penguin Press.