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A Digital Life

Changes in communication bring opportunities that have never existed before, but sometimes, being connected comes with consequences.

Kenzie Gossett sat in her room, staring at the computer screen. The page she had pulled up was an interesting shade of blue, not light, but not quite dark either. In the middle were two boxes, underneath one word: Tumblr. She finally decided to create an account.

Shortly after, she started talking to other users. The first was named Henry, and Kenzie, a shy sixteen-year-old from White House, Tennessee, thought the German boy was interesting. He had also recently been through a breakup, and the two helped each other get through the hard time—creating a friendship that didn’t need physical contact.

The continuous evolution of communication has allowed for relationships like Kenzie’s to form and change the way we go about creating them. And those changes sometimes affect more than we would think.

Kenzie has seen those changes personally.

The more she talked to people on Tumblr, as well as other social media sites, the more she realized she could be more true to herself. When she was writing, she could express her thoughts clearly—sometimes even saying things she wouldn’t say in person.

The same year she met Henry, she started talking more to a girl she had known since middle school. Her name was Alex, and although she had moved away after middle school, they were still friends—both in the actual sense of the word and on Facebook. Facebook would be what brought them back together.

Alex had posted a status about being bisexual and proud, something Kenzie thought was amazing. That’s cool, she thought. I’m not, but that’s cool. But she was lying.

She didn’t know that, though. At the time, she wasn’t out—not even to herself, at least not fully. But Alex changed that. She asked Kenzie about her sexuality, and she admitted to her that she had thoughts about kissing girls, and was probably in love with her best friend.

Because she didn’t have to see Alex face-to-face when she made the admission, she felt more comfortable with it. She was from a small town, where being bisexual wasn’t something she could tell just anyone she knew.

But as it turns out, being able to have more intimate conversations across a digital platform is actually pretty common.

According to Mediated Interpersonal Communication, we tend to be more open and honest when we’re talking to someone who isn’t right in front of us. Because the communication is taking place through digital means, there’s a perception that we’re alone, making us somehow feel more comfortable.

Mary Moore, a professor of interpersonal communication at Ball State University, says that this is a common experience. Close, intimate conversations don’t always need to be had in person—and sometimes, like with Kenzie, it’s easier to have them digitally.

Kenzie finds this to be true in any sort of relationship—online or in person.

Sometimes it’s just easier to reach out to people through a text, and Kenzie doesn’t think it makes her relationships any less meaningful. Rather, she thinks that being able to talk to them with a touch of a button on her phone makes the relationships more intimate—they can always be there for each other when needed, and sometimes even say things they might not feel comfortable saying in person.

This approach is a good way to make sure relationships are staying healthy, according to Moore. When relationships are formed in person, and communication stays strictly in person, things don’t always work out. It’s hard to consistently find time to hang out or even just talk face-to-face, so relationships that don’t use any form of digital communication can either become unhealthy or just fade out.

When digital communication is used, people can maintain their relationships without having to meet face-to-face. Even though time constraints may still apply, because responsibilities don’t go away, Moore says that keeping in contact in ways that don’t involve meeting can help relationships develop faster, while keeping them healthy.

It might not seem incredibly intimate, but a quick, “Hey, how are you?” can go a long way in making sure relationships don’t die.

Sometimes, relationships don’t even have to have the face-to-face element at all. A lot of Kenzie’s internet friends live in different countries, or just in opposite ends of the United States, so she can’t hang out with them on a daily basis. In fact, she might not ever get to meet some of them—but she’s okay with that.

She doesn’t think that physical contact is necessary for a close, intimate relationship, and Moore agrees. Online communication is still a form of interpersonal communication, so meaningful relationships—complete with some types of nonverbal cues and learning personal details—can still form, and survive. And the relationship doesn’t differ from in-person relationships in very significant ways. At the end of the day, it’s still one person forming a connection with another, which is all that’s really necessary.

On the other hand, this tendency to use digital communication instead of sitting down and talking to someone could be decreasing the value we place on that face-to-face contact, and causing other problems as well.

According to a 2015 study published in the Review of Communication, individuals surveyed realize that internet-based methods of communication, like social media and other messaging apps, often replace more traditional, face-to-face communication—a change most said they were fine with.

However, that preference can have its disadvantages.

Kenzie was sitting in her room one night, tired from a long day. All she wanted was to sink into her bed. But she couldn’t.

It felt like every time she was about to feel rested, her phone would go off. Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Tumblr, texts—all of it. And all at once. Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Sometimes, all she wants to do is smash both her phone and her computer—anything to stop the constant connectedness that she both loves and hates.

Although the idea of constant communication seems great, the reality is that sometimes we just need a break. And without turning off the phone, this can sometimes be hard to achieve.

Moore says that this is a common downside to having access to this kind of communication. It’s great for maintaining relationships, but it can soon become necessary to draw a line—not only for the sake of our sanity, but also so we don’t fall into the trap of relying too much on our devices.

When Kenzie first started college, she went to Lee University—still in Tennessee—but her boyfriend at the time went to school four hours away. She didn’t mind the idea of a long-distance relationship at first. After all, she could call him, and text him, anytime she wanted. It might not turn out to be that bad.

However, she soon began to realize that it wasn’t the best situation. Sometimes when her friends or people she knew would go out, she would be in her room, talking to him, or just texting. And when she wanted to hang out with someone, there wasn’t anyone to hang out with. He was too far away, and didn’t get to visit often.

Eventually, it began to feel like she was dating her phone. And it was lonely.

Digital communication carries with it the ability to improve our lives in a multitude of ways—but it isn’t a fix-all. James Rediger, a professor of communication at Ball State University, says that relying too much on digital forms of communication can be unhealthy, and lead to feelings of loneliness.

Because humans are social by nature, we need to have at least some interaction with people in person. As much as we may value our online relationships, Rediger doesn’t think that they can ever truly be a complete substitute for ones that take place in person.

Kenzie learned that the hard way with her long-distance relationship. She spent so much time on her phone with him that she couldn’t have meaningful relationships with the people who were actually there with her, leading to dissatisfaction. She thought her social cravings were being satisfied, but in reality, she needed something more than words across a screen.

For some people, digital communication is all that they have, and Moore thinks that, although not ideal, this is better than nothing. But it can still be dangerous, and cause the same feelings that Kenzie experienced.

The key to handling situations like these is balance. Moore says that you can’t rely too much on one or the other, if you want both to be healthy. It’s also important to consider how much time you’re spending with one—especially in the presence of another.

In the Review of Communication study, it was found that nearly two-thirds of all participants would say that their friends considered them to be dependent on digital communication. It’s a vicious cycle, one affecting the other, which is where balance comes back into play.

Kenzie says that she tries to make sure that she isn’t talking to her online friends while she’s hanging out with someone else. There’s another time for that—a better time. And this is one of the best ways to maintain a balance, according to Moore.

Without that balance, dependency on digital communication can even begin to affect more than just relationships.

In an age where there’s a web-based application for everything, interpersonal communication skills are often overlooked, which Rediger says can affect a person’s ability to get a job later in life. Very few jobs don’t involve talking to people face-to-face at some point, and employers won’t want to hire someone who prefers typing emails to picking up the phone.

Even though Kenzie isn’t always comfortable talking face-to-face with people because of her social anxiety, she recognizes that it can be necessary. Not every task can be accomplished through her phone—and she’s come to learn that’s not a bad thing.

Sometimes, you just have to log off.

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