[NOTE: This post was updated March 2018]
Many of us have seen, heard, or read about the computer geek who is so consumed about interacting with his computer that he forgets how to interact with other people in a real-world situation. Well, there’s actually research to confirm this! But what is really surprising is not just anecdotal but goes far beyond it. It is estimated that 20% of all digital natives* satisfy the clinical criteria for pathological Internet use (Mullen, 2011).
*Digital natives: collectively include the youngest of the 50 million members of Generation X (i.e., Americans born between 1964 and 1980), the members of Generation Y (or “millennials,” born between 1981 and 2000), and those born since 2001.
Citing research studies supporting the notion that developing minds are highly susceptible to external influences and that “certain digital activity (e.g., electronic gaming) can suppress and temporarily turn off the frontal lobe in young brains, the region responsible for cognitive and sensory integration and decision making” (p. 2014), Mullen maintains that “long-term excessive electronic exposure can have severe consequences to the development of nonverbal communication skills, empathy, and interpersonal relations” (p. 2014).
The short of it is this: The neural pathways required to sharpen and polish the interpersonal skills, empathic capacities, and effective personal intuitions are frequently “left unstimulated and underdeveloped in digital natives” (Mullen, 2011, p. 2015).
Much of our human communication in a face-to-face (FtF) setting is nonverbal. Think about the facial expressions, hand gestures, and other nonverbal cues we send out and receive from others while we’re talking. It is not surprising, then, to learn that those who spend a prolonged period of time interacting with other human beings through computer-mediated communication (CMC) miss out on the more subtle nuances of human interactions.
So what, you might ask? Consider this, digital natives who depend too much on computer-mediated communication (CMC) will tend to miss nonverbal cues indicating deception and insincerity. The ramifications, for the digital natives who are employees and for their employers, are that “many who have been raised in the Internet Age may be ill suited for high-trust professions involving the establishment of FtF relationships.”
As Mullen states: Those who have an overreliance on computer-mediated communication (CMC) will tend to miss out on much of the “real” message, have difficulty sorting out the “felt” from the “false” facial expressions. In essence, they have “no opportunity to pick up on nonverbal cues indicating deception, discomfort, doubt, or insincerity on the part of their interlocutor” (Mullen, 2011, p. 2023).
Neuroscientists and researchers argue that empathy (our ability to understand someone else’s point of view) is crucial to our moral reasoning, ethical sensitivity, social influence, and development of healthy interpersonal relationships. Our sense of empathy is developed through our accumulated face-to-face (FtF) interactions from the time we’re born through young adulthood. However, those who depend too much on computer-mediated communication (CMC) will tend to miss out on much of the “real” message and have difficulty sorting out the “felt” from the “false” facial expressions. In essence, when computer use is excessive and FtF interaction decreases, these individuals have “no opportunity to pick up on nonverbal cues indicating deception, discomfort, doubt, or insincerity on the part of their interlocutor” (Mullen, 2011, p. 2023).
“Today’s young digital natives may be ill-suited for jobs in high-trust fields such as diplomacy and sales, because prolonged exposure to computers is reconfiguring their neural networks and possibly diminishing their empathy and social skills, says John K. Mullen of Gonzaga University. With 55% of person-to-person communication being nonverbal (tone of voice, inflection), overreliance on computer-based interactions may hamper an individual’s ability to judge intent and influence others, Mullen suggests” (HBR Daily Stat).
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor
Mullen, J. K. (2011). The impact of computer use on employee performance in high-trust professions: Re-examining selection criteria in the Internet age. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(8), 2009-2043.