by: Kathy Neilsen

We know that cell phones are ever present in modern American life. What is less clear is the effect that this new reality has on our relationships. In her recent New York Times article (, Sherry Turkel (who has been studying technology and communication for 30 years) addresses this question and argues that the effect has been dramatic. Conversation is the most humanizing thing that we do and our conversations have been fundamentally altered. Open ended and spontaneous conversation teaches empathy; we learn to make eye contact, to listen, support, and to pay attention to the subtleties of body language. We learn to be fully present and vulnerable, skills that form the building blocks of intimacy. Educators tell us that this kind of conversation is increasingly rare. While college students may applaud their many online “friends” and liberation from boredom, what is lost?

Studies show that the mere presence of cell phones inhibits real conversation from taking place. And is the reported 40 percent decline in empathy among college students an unintended consequence of our lack of face to face connection? One wise student, quoted in Turkel’s article, commented, “Our texts are fine, it’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

Resiliency and Sacred Spaces

Turkel believes in human resiliency. And ironically, happily, her resiliency research takes place at a device-free summer camp. Here she learned that the capacity for empathic conversation goes hand in hand with the capacity for solitude. “In solitude we learn to concentrate and imagine, to listen to ourselves. We need these skills to be fully present in conversation.”

At Brown Ledge there are many opportunities for both solitude and conversation, without the intervening distractions of our electronic devices. Solitude and the accompanying internal dialog happens in kayaks, on hikes, and while walking and cooling down a horse on a hot day. At the same time, the opportunities for real conversation are practically endless; in the dining room, at counselor and junior counselor times, in a sailboat, while making friendship bracelets in Arts and Crafts… Brown Ledge is a place of connection and conversation. It is one of the “sacred places” to which Turkel refers where we practice the shared virtues of solitude and conversation.

In the end, Turkel is hopeful. While acknowledging the risks of our device obsessed culture, she writes, “This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours.”