Internet-Addled Teens Are Worse at Awkward, Necessary Dating Conversations

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Photo: Dean Belcher

James Murphy, the driving force of LCD Soundsystem, is not just a composer of dance-rock masterpieces, but a canny observer of life. Consider the chant that runs through the title track of the album Sound of Silver: “Sound of silver, talk to me / Makes you want to feel like a teenager / Until you remember the feelings of / A real-life emotional teenager / Then you think again.” It’s a testament to how, despite how much our culture worships youth, being young kinda sucks, especially in the romance department.

Doubly so if smartphones are involved, it turns out. At least that’s the key takeaway from a new study in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. It found that the more time teens spent with their phones, the worse they were at navigating the thorny thickets of relationships. The authors, led by University of North Carolina researcher Jacqueline Nesi, gave 487 adolescents (with the median age of 14) a questionnaire to answer about their technology use and their relationship skills. Then, a year later, they gave them the same questionnaire, to see how their “romantic competencies,” or being able to keep arguments from escalating into fights or telling their partners what they wanted out of their relationship, did or didn’t grow.

They found that among the kids with significant others, those who communicated with their boyfriends or girlfriends via “technological modes” like texting or social networks had lower self-reported romantic competencies than the adolescents who used more traditional modes of communication, like talking in person or over the phone. In consonance with traditionalist gender roles, the associations were stronger with boys than girls.

The researchers think all that screen time could be making it harder for kids to develop the social skills needed to handle tricky, emotionally fraught situations.“With electronic communications, there are fewer interpersonal cues,” Nesi said in a statement. “You’re not seeing facial expressions or using nonverbal communications. So, the predominant use of social media may limit the opportunity to practice in-person conversations that are crucial for adolescents, particularly boys, to develop important skills.” At the same time, there might be a self-selection skewing the results: It could be that the more conversationally awkward or less confident teens chose to rely on texting since there’s less vulnerability involved.

Nesi told Quartz the study doesn’t conclude that teen internet use is “bad” in general, but there might be certain things about it that are harmful. She said that a platform like Skype — where there’s eye contact and facial expression — might be better for kids’ communicative development than Facebook Messenger or other text-only apps.

While it’s tempting to proclaim that this research is further evidence that the Kids These Days Are Stupid And Technology Is Awful, the more meaningful takeaway is that while we talk about “having” a girlfriend or boyfriend, a relationship is not a possession. It might be more useful to think of it as a “practice,” in the same way people pursue a meditation or yoga “practice.” And the only way you grow in either of those pursuits is by doing them. Just this week, a couples therapist was telling us that “emotional fluency” — or the ability to put your interior states into words so your partner can empathize with what you’re feeling — is crucial for having a flourishing relationship. And to do that, it requires looking away from the screen, turning toward the person that you’re with, and figuring out, awkward conversation by awkward conversation, how the hell you talk to someone you care about.

Techy teens are worse at dating conversations.