The Lonely World of Digital Communication

In a digital communication world, we all have Facebook profiles with hundreds of so-called “friends” on our lists. We have Twitter accounts devoted to following all sorts of people, from acquaintances to celebrities. And even more social media websites are garnering attention because, apparently, we can never have too many ways of connecting with one another. One has to ask the question, “Are we developing effective communication skills?”

We shouldn’t forget our phones, either. As Business Insider points out, Experian Marketing Services found that “U.S. smartphone owners aged 18 to 24 send 2,022 texts per month on average—67 texts on a daily basis—and receive another 1,831.” Older age groups don’t average nearly as high, but they still have hundreds of text messages to send every month.

Importance of Communication Skills: The Loneliness Epidemic

Even with all this communication going on, the number of lonely people in the United States has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Stephen Marche of The Atlantic has analyzed the results of various surveys that show just how isolated we’re becoming. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no one to discuss important matters with. That increased to 25 percent by 2004. And in 1985, 15 percent of Americans said they had only one good friend. That became 20 percent in 2004.

Lonely Crowd


Has the rise of Facebook and social media in general curbed this epidemic? Probably not. As Marche goes on to note, a study entitled “Who Uses Facebook?” was conducted in 2012 and found that there was a “tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals.” So although social scientists have debated whether or not social media is hurting our interpersonal skills (as Nvate has explored before), it’s clear that it usually doesn’t help lonely people find fellowship. If someone’s lonely in the real world, the digital world won’t make up for it.

Loneliness is obviously an unpleasant feeling in and of itself, but the chemical changes it induces in the brain makes it even worse when digital communication is the primary form of communication. Loneliness is linked to poor memory, depression, poor sleep, dementia and overall cognitive decline, as Marche points out. So this epidemic isn’t something to take lightly.

The Importance of Face-to-Face Communication in a Digital World

There are all types of communication and technology can actually be one of the barriers to effective communication. Why doesn’t technology, complete with our long lists of friends and giant floods of text messages, make us feel closer to one another? The answer is relatively simple: humans simply weren’t designed to interact in virtual realms. Our ancestors did the vast majority of their communication face-to-face, save for some letters and the occasional smoke signal, for thousands upon thousands of years. The recent rise of digital communication is especially recent when you compare roughly a decade to the entire history of the human race.

Because humans have long communicated with one another in the physical realm, we’re naturally prone to using more than words to pick up on emotions. In the book Integrity Service, business author Ron Willingham points out that, in a real face-to-face conversation, our words convey only seven percent of our message: our voice and body language perform the rest. So in text messages, e-mails, and other forms of digital communication, we’re missing out on ninety-three percent of what could have been a heartfelt discussion.

Body Language Examples

Our body language is important for both social and business interactions. Credit:

If you find that percentage difficult to believe, ask yourself a few questions. How often is sarcasm in an e-mail or text message misinterpreted as serious? How closely connected would you feel to someone you’ve never met in real life, but can only text? After all, even before the rise of digital communication, we were well aware that meeting a “pen pal” in real life was a real big deal even if we’ve written a number of letters to one another. We knew a real conversation was more meaningful than written words.

And consider this: if someone writes, “I don’t know,” all that conveys to us is that they do not know something. However, if we’re speaking to them face-to-face, their tone of voice and body language can reveal so much more. If they throw their hands in the air and yell, “I don’t know!”, they’re obviously furious. If they glare at us and practically hiss the words, then they’re obviously bitter. If they look down at the ground and mumble the words, they could be embarrassed. Sure, we can convey anger in writing by using the power of CAPS LOCK, but the wide range of human emotions simply cannot be conveyed in a quick e-mail or text message as clearly as in real life. And sorry, but I don’t think little smiley faces are as powerful as our actual faces.

Of course, we could get tone of voice back into our communication simply by using those fancy phones of ours to call other people, but the idea of calling someone nowadays is seen as “intrusive.” The term “cold calling” used to refer only to situations in which businesses contacted people with no prior warning. Now, some people, particularly Millennials, find it rude if you demand all their attention right away by calling them without texting first. However, interaction in the real world demands that we speak to people without always being prepared to do so.

Valuing Our Phones over People

It’s also problematic that we often use digital communication as a means of avoiding real interaction. I’ll just be speaking from my own experience here, not research studies, but I doubt my anecdotes are isolated cases completely unlike what other people encounter.

Particularly, I’ve noticed that many people retreat into the world of texting with their current contacts rather than try building new relationships with the people around them. Back when I was in college, making friends by joining on-campus clubs wasn’t always so easy. Especially during the first few weeks of each club, I’d find people who introduce themselves, say a few more words, and then poke away at their smartphones again. This problem isn’t just limited to Millennials, though. Let me tell you that jury duty is even more boring when your fellow citizens are staring at their phones rather than making polite conversation with you during downtime.

Smartphone Addicts


Rather than retreat into your current circle of contacts whenever you can, consider mingling with people around you. Even short conversations can brighten someone’s day because there’s something naturally appealing about meeting someone new—though we seem to forget that a lot nowadays. Plus, ignoring your phone for a while can help you develop a peace of mind where you can enjoy yourself without constantly busying yourself through any means necessary.

Using Different Communication Techniques in the Digital Age

So, let me make a little proposal regarding digital communication. Try to be more mindful of the situations in which you’re using technology to communicate. Is the technology you’re using the absolute best means of interacting with others? Speaking from my own experience again, I’ve found certain mediums to be more effective than others based on the situation. Texting works well when you just have short messages for other people, perhaps to see if they’re busy at the moment, for example. An e-mail is particularly effective for sharing a relatively long message, almost like a lecture, that the person needs time to think about before they respond.

However, a face-to-face conversation or at least a phone call are absolutely essential when effective communication requires a lot of back-and-forth between you and the other person. In these cases, it’s amazing how much more ground you can cover in a few minutes of talking than in days worth of texts and e-mails.

And of course, deep, emotional matters should be given the proper respect they deserve through actual conversation. That’s simply how humans are designed to build and foster meaningful relationships. Real conversations can surely fend off loneliness better than late-night sessions on Facebook can.

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