Spreading out emotional risk in digital social spaces

By Anne Collier

It’s a kind of digital-age product segmentation or mitosis (remember learning about how cells divide and multiply in biology class?), all the different communication options that have come with the rise of digital media – texting, liking, social gaming, social networking, tweeting, snapchatting, skyping, etc. Each one seems to be associated with a certain level of emotional investment and risk, the Lives column in the New York Times Magazine illustrates. Kind of like the difference between a letter and a phone call but with many more gradations. Tweeting is low-risk, texting a little higher (because typically more personal), and answering the phone – hearing someone’s voice – apparently very high-risk, emotionally. Skyping even more so if it’s video, since being able to see each other really gets us invested.

As I’m sure you know, this isn’t just about young people’s digital communications, but definitely something to think about as parents. Writer Caeli Wolfson Widger looks at how taking actual phone calls from people has become higher risk, so people think twice before they answer – one of the social norms that have developed around these gradations of communication for adults. She shows how, from her own experience, she had fallen into a social norm she was now questioning: “delaying the on-the-spot engagement required by another human voice. I’d been coasting along on what seems like a new norm: Nobody picks up…. My friends, family and I have already trained one another to live by the new rules of engagement: Call only if truly necessary. Text first.” But, she writes – though she “might hesitate first,” she’s “forcing [herself] to answer unplanned calls these days.” The important thing is, she has really been thinking about it. Neither the technology nor “everybody else” is in charge; she is.