The challenge of a childhood handshake

Getting young people to turn from their screens and look into other people’s eyes is a challenge.

Consider this fair warning: If you’re going to bring your children around me, I’m going to teach them how to shake hands.

The process, which I picked up from my dad, involves three simple steps: “firm grip, squeeze, look me in the eye.” When my father started doing this in the 1970s, the hardest step for many children was the first. More recently, I’ve noticed that young people have an almost universal aversion to the final step.

No one will look me in the eye.

For a long time, I didn’t think much of this quirk. Children are often awkward around adults. Give them a few years and they’ll grow out of it, right?

Maybe not. A few years ago, I was having drinks one night with Clifford Nass, a restlessly creative communication professor at Stanford University. Nass told me about research he was doing that suggested young people were spending so much time looking into screens that they were losing the ability to read nonverbal communications and learn other skills necessary for one-on-one interactions.

As a dorm supervisor, he connected this development with a host of popular trends among young people, from increased social anxiety to group dating.

I was fascinated but let the thread slide, and a few months later, Nass died suddenly on a hiking trip. In the intervening years, I’ve heard increasing alarm about the impact of technology on children. Was Nass right? I decided to revisit the debate to see what parents should know.

Reading nonverbal communication is an underappreciated skill. For most of our history, humans had no choice but to communicate face to face. With so much experience, we honed the ability to detect sometimes-lifesaving information from facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and posture.

Numerous studies have shown children learn these skills early. Even babies follow their parents’ gazes and mimic their expressions.

“We have this extraordinary human capacity to read each other’s emotions; we are born this way,” said Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. But there’s increasing evidence that we’re losing this capacity, she said. “The question is,” she said, “what happened to us?”

Many point the finger at technology. The data about technology use among children is staggering. The Kaiser Family Foundation puts media use among 8- to 18-year-olds at more than 7.5 hours a day. A study released this month by the Pew Research Center showed that a quarter of teenagers are online “almost constantly.” Among 12- to 17-year-olds, texting has become the primary means of communication, outstripping direct human contact. Common Sense Media found that 72 percent of children age 8 and younger had used a mobile device. These figures include a third of children younger than 2. The amount of time children younger than 8 spend on these devices tripled from five minutes a day in 2011 to 15 minutes in 2013.

Nass was the first to study the impact all this technology use was having on face-to-face communication. In 2012, he and some colleagues at Stanford questioned 3,461 girls ages 8 to 12 using online survey techniques. The study found that the less time the girls spent on screens and the more time in face-to-face communication, the greater their social success, the higher their feelings of normalcy, the more sleep they got and the fewer friends they had who their parents believed were a bad influence. The more time the girls spent with screens, by contrast, the less sleep they got and the lower their self-esteem.

Though the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal run by the American Psychological Association, some dismissed it as isolated and unpersuasive. In the years since, few scholars continued this work.

Patricia M. Greenfield, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles (and the editor of the original piece), told me that despite this lack of evidence, in the more than four decades she has been examining young people and technology, she has seen a rapid escalation in disturbing habits.

“It used to be we went into communities every 20 years looking for change. Now, I can see changes even between my 14-year-old grandson and my 8-year-old grandson.”

Not everyone is convinced of this connection. Judith Hall, distinguished professor at Northeastern University and an expert in nonverbal communication, told me that save for a few isolated young people who play video games all day, most children have enough interpersonal contact to learn to read emotions: “Especially when the interaction is social — emails, texting, reading between the lines of Facebook posts — the demands on social intelligence are high.”

Watching television and playing video games can also have cognitive benefits, she said. “We should not leap to facile conclusions,” Hall said. “It may not be all doom and gloom.”

Others see the threat less as the technology and more how we use it. Way of New York University, the author of “Deep Secrets: Boys, Friendship, and the Crisis of Connection” and a longtime student of teenagers, said her research shows that boys and girls alike are sensitive and articulate about the feelings of those around them. “But by late adolescence, when they’re spending more time online, they’re basically told to keep those feelings to themselves.”

When children don’t practice empathy and face-to-face techniques when they’re adolescents, she said, these skills become less polished.

I came away with several impressions.

First, be wary. Everybody I spoke with stressed that I should at least be skeptical of the headlong rush to screens.

Second, make more time for face-to-face activities. Way suggested setting aside periods every day for interactions that value vulnerability and feelings.

Nass may not have had time to prove his point, but the larger issue seems more relevant than ever. We can’t become fully human until we learn to look into other people’s eyes. A good handshake may not be the only answer, but for me, at least, it’s a good place to start.