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Children's communication skills - a casualty of the online era?

When I was a teenager, if I wanted to arrange to meet a friend at the weekend, I'd call my friend's home phone (having asked permission to use my home phone first, of course). In most cases, the friend's Mum or Dad would answer the phone and I'd politely ask to speak with them have a conversation, make our arrangements and put the phone down.

If I were a teenager today, I'd probably simply bbm/text my friend "R u free Sat?"

There's no doubt that the ability to communicate remotely has advanced hugely since I was young. However, while all this technology is extraordinarily clever and useful, does it mean that our children's communication skills will lose out? We recently ran a survey with 500 of our Perform parents and that's exactly was one of the main findings. It seems that parents are concerned that their children's social skills are not being developed because of online technology. In fact, parents' main concerns were their children's social confidence when meeting new people, their happiness and their ability to make friends. Interestingly, these ranked higher than those about their child's academic ability and health.

I wasn't especially surprised by this because it's something that I hear every day from Perform parents. In fact, that's why I set up Perform in the first place - because drama is the perfect way to help children improve their communication skills. But is the online era really to blame?

Certainly, all these new methods of communication don't help the art of conversation. I find that I rarely speak to friends on the phone these days. It's all bbm, texting, emailing and tweeting. But while I have a sufficiently established set of social skills for this to have a minimal impact on me, children growing up today are not in the same position. The formative social development years of 4-12 will be very different for today's children and, if they don't tend to have face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication, then surely the development of vital social skills such as eye contact and body language are going to suffer.

And it's not just "real" interaction which is being affected. So is children's ability to construct sentences when writing. I spoke to a Head Teacher the other day about this and she said that ?text speak' is very much apparent when children write these days. And emailing? There's no real etiquette to email, so the more we use it, the more the art of letter-writing will be forgotten.

"Good riddance" you may say. "Etiquette, spelling and punctuation are simply methods people use to enforce differences in class and education. The substance of communication is the only thing that matters". You may have a point. However, few would dispute that face-to-face interaction and our confidence to be able to do it is crucial. After all, these are the skills that allow us to present ourselves to the outside world, the ones we use to ?sell ourselves' when we go for job interviews and the way we make friends and live our lives. They are, quite literally, the skills we need for a happy, balanced and fulfilling life and to see them slipping away is deeply worrying.

Clearly no one wants to go back to the days before online technology but will the gains in immediacy, connectivity and convenience be the demise of a more real richer and closer interaction?

I tweeted this idea yesterday and a cousin who I haven't seen or spoken to for years tweeted back immediately with "Maybe, but it's made us get back in touch after 10 years of no communication so is it such a bad thing?" I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

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