Another potential threat to communication is the fact that many modern teens would much rather text than talk, says MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Read How You Want). It's a trend she finds troubling. "People are losing important verbal communication skills," says Turkle. "If your child chooses to text you as a primary means of contact, that's a problem. It's unacceptable for your son to write back, 'I'm fine,' when you call his cell phone to check up. You need to hear your kids' voices or see them to know they're okay."
Texting and tweeting instead of talking not only leads to conversations filled with dramatic hyperbole, creative spelling and LOLs, it can also create a generation of conversational illiterates who struggle to read body language, resolve conflicts or deal with difficult emotions, warns Van Petten.
She remembers telephoning a close friend to share the sad news that her grandfather had just died. "There was a long silence," Van Petten says. "And then my friend said, 'That sucks.' Later she texted me: 'I'm so sorry, what can I do to help?' I realized she had no idea how to say this over the phone; she lacked the ability to verbally express the words I needed to hear."
In fact, technology might be damaging our capacity to feel real grief whether for an individual's passing or for other upsetting circumstances. A University of Michigan study found today's college students are 40% less empathetic than students 30 years ago, which researchers attribute at least partially to the rise of social media.
"You can't learn empathy by staring at a screen," notes educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (Jossey-Bass). "Technology can rob us of face-to-face interactions. The best way parents can teach empathy is by modeling it in front of their kids."
Borba also suggests following the 3T Rule: no texting, tapping or talking (on a cell phone) during family time. That means adults too. Other advice: Always insist on eye contact when having discussions. Explain your feelings in detail so kids learn to interpret emotions. Finally, set firm limits on how much time everyone spends immersed in social media.
Still, being able to effectively share ideas online or via text is a useful skill—and one that will continue to be in demand as we move forward in an always-connected world, says Ellison. "You have to remember there's still a person on the other end of a text," she says. "It's just a different way of relating." So while teens do have to hone their real-life social abilities, parents must acknowledge that their kids will be entering a professional world where social media literacy is the key to success. And kids are more fluent in the language of emoticons and texting than we'll ever be.