You’re the most popular kid at the party as long as all the other guests are little gray bubbles.
The Scenario: Your friend texts and DMs you like it’s her job. You rarely see her in person and she doesn’t FaceTime you because, as she puts it, FaceTime is weird unless you’re in a long distance relationship and forgot what your partner’s funbags look like. She also works from home, and sometimes you wonder if she ever does anything in real time (especially since Amazon now delivers groceries). Texting makes you feel like you’re talking to her in real life. Well, until you actually see each other in real life.
Will your friend’s rampant texting-only habit affect or mold her real-life social skills? And is it going to be harder for her to make friends and sustain relationships beyond the screen?
The Facts: Since most of your discussions are via text, your friend isn’t getting the neuropsychological markers—like tone of voice and facial expressions—that she needs in order to to understand the back and forth of in-person discussions. In fact, communicating sans voice or physical cues could foster a psychological issue called cyber disinhibition,wherein your friend loses restraint for social conventions and thought to how people will react to what they’re saying, says Elizabeth Reyes-Fournier, Florida-based psychotherapist and psychology professor at Keiser University.
In person, “you’re not going to be as forward, you’re not going to be as brutally honest as you would in a text message or in a kind of cyber communication,” Reyes-Fournier says. “If I’m talking to someone and I’m telling them bad news and I see them reacting, [and] if their eyes well up or something, I will cushion it more.” In other words, text-related bluntness could cause you to be less sensitive to important IRL cues, ultimately making you less likely to pick up on them when you’re face-to-face with the person you’ve been texting.
The Worst That Could Happen: Your friend texting as her dominant form of communication could hurt her ability to make and keep friendships in real time. Worst case, she ends up isolating herself by continuing to communicate in a text-only medium. Her frontal lobe—otherwise known as the part of the brain associated with behavior, learning, voluntary movement and personality—will get very little action, and she’ll become further isolated.
What Will Probably Happen: Disinhibition, Reyes-Fournier says, can affect social life in more subtle ways, too—essentially numbing the markers that allow your friend to be a useful human who can sit on her patio and effectively listen to a person she cares about vent after a hard day at work. “If we don’t have any markers that tell us we’ve put our foot in our mouths, that whole part of our brain shuts off,” Reyes-Fournier says. That means when your friend is texting, she’s not so much concerned with the other person’s reaction as much as what she’s typing to them.
What to Tell Your Friend: Put down the phone, buddy. Make more time for your IRL ramen friend dates, because it’ll remind him or her why you’re close in the first place. If you can’t get together as routinely as you’d like, talk on the phone or, even better, use FaceTime or Skype. This will give your friend the neurological feels they need to have meaningful conversations with facial and vocal cues. When your voice goes into a lower register, it’ll activate your friend’s brain to realize, “Oh, she’s sad,” or “Oh, she’s talking really fast, so she must be excited.”
These tactics will retrain your friend’s brain for in-person communication. As much as she’s averse to it, a happy medium to help your friend start adjusting back to real life convo could be video chat. “Facetime] is perfect because then I can see your face and I can hear your voice and I know the whole communication,” Reyes-Fournier says.