Friday, July 23, 2010

Telling the NY Times that “Texting” does NOT = Failure to Communicate

In the article Failure to Communicate the New York Times blames in part texting for students ineptness at resolving conflict. This is yet another example of digital immigrant critics blaming the tool rather than addressing the issue at hand. The director of housing laments that lately they are noticing something different: students seem to lack the will, and skill, to address ordinary conflicts. “We have students who are mad at each other and they text each other in the same room. “So many of our roommate conflicts are because kids don’t know how to negotiate a problem.”

How is it that the director assumes texting someone is a less valid form of communication then his preferred method? Students who’ve grown up digital are communicating in ways much different then those who (in this case) are directing them. It’s a shame that this housing director didn’t realize that, although they were not communicating in a way in which he preferred, the kids were communicating. Adults would be more effective at supporting students in resolving conflict when they realize that there are multiple ways to communicate. Just because students choose a different medium to do so, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Instead, if adults embrace the communication whatever the medium and support students in navigating in that medium, we’d all be better off. In short we need to stop blaming the medium and start supporting students in succeeding in their digital environment.

It seems that supporting students in communicating in their environments is something that never crossed the minds of these digital immigrant administrators who speculate that reliance on cellphones and the Internet may have made it easier for young people to avoid uncomfortable encounters. What these administrators don’t acknowledge is that students are communicating in more ways then ever and many educators/administrators are not taping into any of them except the traditional face-to-face method in which they are comfortable.

The article poses the question, “Why express anger in person when you can vent in a text?” My answer is why do we believe we should only express anger in person? What is wrong with trying to address conflict via text, IM, BBM, or other means if that is the communication style more comfortable for our students. It’s a method I personally have had success with during tiffs with my boyfriend. I’ve found many advantages of texting over talking...and, yes, even when we’re in the same room. One advantage is that if others are around they don’t have to hear our business. I’m sure in tight quarters with the roommates in this article that’s often the case. Another advantage is that, especially in times of conflict, it is often more effective for me to get my thoughts together first in text (instead of spoken words). It provides me a moment to express, review, reflect, and decide if I actually want to hit send. Additionally, communicating without the heated emotion of voice can often convey a message in a way that seems less critical and emotionally charged.

In the article an assistant director in the office of residential life laments the fact that dissatisfied students rarely take them up on an offer from a resident adviser to mediate, complaining that “We don’t have a lot of mediation. We have a lot of avoidance.” While in the next breath the article says kids are publicly addressing conflict on Facebook. That doesn't sound like avoidance to me. Perhaps the students are not interested in mediation support because the mediators have a DSL (digital as a second language) accent, that they just don’t really understand and they feel these mediators don’t understand their digital communication methods either.

Perhaps if the educational system was less busy banning and/or criticizing students for their preferred communication style educators and administrators could instead stop complaining and start getting to the business of teaching students socially appropriate behavior in these environments.


  1. I'm a strong believer in digital communication, but I have to disagree with you. The article cited a lot of convincing evidence of an increase in students' failure to resolve conflicts (such as an increase in requests for new roommates)that mirrors the increase in digital communication.
    I think texting is great for straightforward businesslike communication. But when strong emotions are involved, face-to-face communication is necessary.
    My daughter starts college this fall, and at her orientation session we met the director of the Parent Relations Office. This is a two- person office devoted to dealing with parents' questions and concerns. I had never heard of an educational institution having staff devoted to dealing with parents of students who are, at minimum, 18 years old. But then I read the quote in the Times article from the college official who said students will hand him their cellphones saying, "Can you call my mom?"

  2. Very well put! In order to council them, they have to feel like you have something to offer that they can't get anywhere else. If you don't speak their language, how can that relationship ever work?

  3. Lisa, perhaps you hit upon a larger issue -- teaching communication in many ways, including the use of digital media.

    Although many conflicts require face-to-face discussion, letting someone know you are uncomfortable about something in a text or e-mail or DM on Twitter is fine. If it escalates, then face-to-face communication is next.

    We as teachers should demonstrate what is okay digitally and what is not. Often, a misplaced word in an e-mail or text can look more derisive than it is meant to be. These are important considerations.

    The other side is sometimes a well-placed text can assuage a bigger argument that is left to simmer until later.

  4. "convincing evidence of an increase in students' failure to resolve conflicts (such as an increase in requests for new roommates)that mirrors the increase in digital communication."

    Statistical fallacy! Correlation does not imply causation.

  5. It seems to me that what we're really talking about here is a need to go "post digital"...

    The issues aren't whether conflict should or can be resolved via text or not. The issue is how are we supporting our kids to have confidence in themselves, value relationships and practice conflict resolution?

    Frankly, I start with modeling/teaching the relationship part - the communication medium is secondary. Then it's just about how you use it appropriately (i.e. like others have pointed out, texting can be useful, and f2f is important at other times).

    I too find email or text to be useful for being thoughtful about communicating what might be upsetting. It automatically inserts breaks to allow you to take a deep breath and think for a moment before hitting send. Discussing (arguing!) in person leaves me more prone to getting caught up in the momentum of emotion, upset and anger - often leading to things said that are later regretted. Starting with text, allowing the other person time for reflection and thought, and following up with f2f works well for me.

    But that's my style. Yours may be different. And the skill we have to give our kids is how to know what works and how to negotiate that within the context of a relationship? Not as an avoidance technique, but conscious, respectful communication!

  6. I think the sentiment that our education system needs to become a post-digital one is spot on, much like we as a society are trying to become post-racial. Also, I love the ability to listen to your posts with Odiogo.

    Check out more education news and perspectives at where this story is currently trending near the top of the rankings.

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  8. Perhaps this kind of thing will help - The Apostrophe Song iPhone App - it's good!