Photo by Ron Hamlin on Unsplash
What makes interacting with people on a screen different from interacting with people face to face? When we're not face-to-face, the exchange becomes less personal and less intimate. We can't see nonverbal cues or pick up on subtle communication messages, instead having to read between the lines and make our own assumptions. Online, people tend to feel emboldened to share whatever they want with less regard for the impact of the message on others. Sometimes they share things they would never share with a person sitting in front of them, yet they're okay with posting the information online. At times we respond impulsively and react emotionally online without thinking about the words we use or the tone we project. Our voices online can be louder, unfiltered, and offensive without us fully realizing the impact. Our words may offend others and paint a negative picture of ourselves. Sometimes people are seeking attention, even if it's negative, and post provocative messages and opinions to get a response. Or maybe they are desperate for a connection and know no other way to achieve their goal.
Some people who struggle socially and interpersonally rely primarily on internet connections whether it's through social media, gaming, or chat rooms. They may have less anxiety with the screen separating them from other people and prefer limiting their chance of rejection or ridicule. Unfortunately they seek the path of least resistance based on comfort level. Or maybe they choose to unleash their feelings of anger through an email or text because they haven't been able to resolve their feelings through their interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, our younger generations are spending more time in front of a screen than with real people and under appreciate the impact of their words. The internet provides avenues for immediate support from others who believe like they do. They may be looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance that they haven't received elsewhere or lost based on their own poor social skills. Or maybe the internet provides an escape from the conflict and confrontation that they may experience when speaking their mind through in-person interactions. However, as we rely more on our fingers than our mouths to talk, we miss a whole world of nuances tied to communication.
So what can be done to shift our focus back to real people interactions from screen conversations? The obvious answer is to limit our screen time and avoid relying on those interactions to share or discuss emotionally sensitive and conflictual topics. Easier said than done, I've fallen into that trap on occasion. We can all benefit from learning to listen more and paying attention to subtle and discreet nonverbal cues from others. Learn to ask open-ended questions and paraphrase back what you heard the other person say so you confirm their message and avoid misinterpretation. A good rule to follow is that if we aren't comfortable sharing our message directly with someone then we shouldn't be sharing it via our screen. Or maybe we impose a 24 hour delay before posting something and decide whether sharing the message is the right decision. Another practice may be to share it with a close and trusted friend who will be honest with us before making the decision to post it. It's not just about offending others, but also about hurting ourselves through our postings. Think before you post and spend more time connecting offline. Relationships are much richer and deeper when you dive into the full experience of face-to-face interactions.