Not necessarily. The third step is gone nowadays, at least amongst the kids in Feiler’s life. The children introduced to Feiler don’t seem able to look adults in the eye anymore. And at first he thought it was nerves—children, after all, have to learn how to greet adults like equals—and he brushed it off as something kids would grow into.
But maybe not. Feiler, after a conversation with Stanford communication professor Clifford Nass, has recently arrived at another possible explanation, namely, that the amount of time kids and teens spend staring at their screens is eroding their ability to register non-verbal communications.
As anyone who’s taken Psych 101 knows (or anyone who’s ever seen a baby), humans begin learning non-verbal communication in infancy. (Obviously, we have to—babies themselves are nonverbal.) We continue to hone this skill well into adulthood: scanning other people for signs of distress, noting expressions of fear or joy or love.
But if young people spend 7.5 hours a day looking at their phones, as many do, that skill is going to be underdeveloped. The Times cites other alarming statistics: “Among 12- to 17-year-olds, texting has become the primary means of communication, outstripping direct human contact.”
Studies support the idea that less screen time means better social skills. In 2012, Dr. Nass at Stanford conducted a study of 3,461 young girls and found that the more socially successful girls spent less time online. They also slept better, reported feeling more “normal,” and had fewer friends their parents disapproved of. More time with screens meant less sleep and worse self-esteem.
The Times notes that some have dismissed this study as “isolated and unpersuasive.” But others, including a psychologist at UCLA, have conducted other studies backing up these conclusions. Still others have argued that digital media can have benefits, and that even heavy screen users still get enough human contact to develop normal social skills.
The jury is obviously still out, but at least to Feiler, one thing is clear: “We can’t become fully human until we learn to look into other people’s eyes. A good handshake may not be the only answer, but for me, at least, it’s a good place to start.”