An Unexpected Cost of Living in a Digital World

An Unexpected Cost of Living in a Digital World

There’s no doubt that technology has made our world just a bit more wonderful. As with anything that brings change for the better, there will always be an aspect that tries to spoil the party. The way to not let it is to understand it. So here we go …

Scientists have found an unexpected cost of digital technology – the ability to read emotions.

The rise in digital media has seen a decrease in face-to-face interaction. Teenagers are leading the trend, reporting texting as the primary and preferred means of communication.

A UCLA study has found this might dampen the ability to read emotion and nonverbal cues.

What They Did

51 preteens spent five days at a nature camp where television, computers and mobile phones were banned. (A 5 day devices embargo. Have you stopped shaking yet?)

Another group of 54 children continued as usual with their digital devices.

At the beginning and end of the five days students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were either happy, sad, angry or scared and asked to name the feeling.

They also watched videos of actors and were asked to describe the characters’ emotions.

Researchers noted the number of errors the students made in identifying the emotions.

What They Found

The students who had the five day embargo on smartphones, televisions or any other digital screens were significantly better at reading emotions and nonverbal cues than those who were allowed to continue using their digital devices.

The change was the same for boys and girls.

Face to face interaction is critical for developing social skills as it sharpens our ability to read emotions and nonverbal cues such as facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, posture and spatial distance. 

Though the study was done with children, the findings have implications for all of us. Being able to accurately read emotional cues is critical for successful relationships and is associated with personal, social and academic outcomes.

We need to be able to read other people accurately to make the split-second, often automatic, decisions around our own behavior and reactions. 

Patricia Greenfield, a Professor of Psychology at UCLA explains, ‘Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues – losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people – is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.’

It’s taken us thousands of years to master the art of the face-to-face interaction and we (as in all of us) still get it terribly wrong at times. What’s interesting is how texting has been adapted (the teens are supreme at it) to communicate emotion and enhance connectedness through the use of abbreviations, emoticons, and affectionate names.

A recent study has shown bonding and feelings of closeness to be significantly closer during person to person interactions than by text – no surprises there.

Interestingly, the study also showed that feelings of connectedness during texting were enhanced with the use of textual cues, such as emoticons, typed laughter and excessive punctuation.

The need to connect is such a fundamental human need, we’ll even find a way to do it digitally. That’s evolution for you. 

For better or worse, we can’t get away from relationships – friend, family, colleagues, lover, doctor, teacher, or the guy at the local café who remembers your fondness for cinnamon. Our ability to relate, and the extent to which we master this (or are open to continuing to master this) has a vast reach.

Whether face to face or via instant messaging, people are always on the hunt for cues to get a sense of the relationship. Are they liked? Loved? Respected? Appreciated? Forgiven? Boring you? Have they messed up? Gone too far? Not far enough? 

Perhaps our task as the ancestors of the future is to keep our ability to read the emotions of others finely tuned, and to ensure that our love affair with digital communication doesn’t dull our capacity to read and respond to others.

The findings of this study serve as a warning, but the ability to relate is a skill we’ve been honing since the beginning of our time and we’re not about to let it fade now. Our primal human need for connectedness won’t let it.

We may do ‘connecting’ differently for a period, perhaps worse for a while, until we figure out a better way to do it – which we will, because we have to. It’s in our DNA.

[irp posts=”1203″ name=”Proven Ways to Strengthen the Connection with Your Teen”]

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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