Wednesday 13 November 2019

Katie Byrne: It'll take more than a phone ban to get Generation Mute talking

Young people use their phones as a social crutch. Stock photo
Young people use their phones as a social crutch. Stock photo
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

If you're not one for small talk, you may want to avoid the Anchor Bar in Courtmacsherry, where proprietors Billy and Padraig Fleming have introduced a mobile phone ban. "It has been noticeable for a number of years now that a lot of people will come into a pub, particularly in the summertime, and the first thing they might say to you is, 'Have you got WiFi?'," Billy told an RTÉ News reporter earlier this week. "And you might say, 'Of course we do'. You know, you think, we're getting a bit modern. So we give them the WiFi and the next thing they're leant down over the table, and they're tapping on a tablet or phone..."

The Flemings aren't alone in their decision. In the last year, a number of restaurants and bars across the world have introduced mobile phone bans in the hope they will resurrect the lost art of conversation. What's interesting, however, is that the people behind these rules tend to be in the 55+ age bracket - as are their customers. The RTE reporter interviewed some of the Anchor Bar patrons. They were all enthusiastic about the ban, but they all looked like they were over the age of 50.

In other words, they came of age during a time when people were taught how to engage without digital distractions. Digital natives, on the other hand, never got this opportunity. The younger generation were raised in a society that values convenience over face-to-face interaction. They grew up in front of screens, so rather than staring into the middle distance when they're alone in a pub, they use their phones as a welcome social crutch.

We've all seen this phenomenon and the Flemings are right: it's a problem. What they seem to have overlooked, however, is that it's a complex problem, with no simple solution. Social skills aren't taught in schools. They are learnt through social connectivity. Older generations honed this skill 'in the field': they talked to their neighbours and their local shopkeepers and, without even realising it, they developed social competence and confidence.

The screen generation didn't get an equal chance to develop their social literacy. When communication is channelled through the quick-fire ping of texts, we don't develop vital skills like turn-taking, active listening and eye contact. Likewise, when we use emojis to convey emotion, we become less adept at reading facial expressions and body language.

We can lambaste digital natives for disappearing into their phones, but what outlets did they have for sharpening their social skills? They hail taxis, order takeaways and book various appointments through apps. They use self-checkout at the supermarket and talk to chatbots rather than real-life customer service representatives. They spend hours texting people they'll never actually meet on dating platforms and they do job interviews by Skype (after having their CVs assessed by 'resume robots').

But digital natives aren't responsible for killing off conversation: they are simply reacting to the technology that is available to them. The problem, of course, is that they are no longer just using their phones for technological convenience; they are using them as a tool to avoid engagement.

It seems anti-social - especially to a generation who remember phone boxes, street parties and meeting under the clock at Clerys - but we ought to remember that digital natives didn't receive a formative education in social skills, so the very idea of engaging without a screen must be terrifying to them.

In the same report, Anchor Bar customer Gerry Burke said he would like to see the idea "spread to every pub in Ireland".

Many will raise a glass to his barstool manifesto, but what they may not realise is that a large cohort of 20- and 30-somethings wouldn't dare set foot in a premises that didn't allow them to turn on and tune out. They simply aren't versed in the subtle nuances of conversation and they need the security blanket of their phone to extricate themselves from potential awkward silences.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is a social anxiety epidemic afoot, but it's not up to restaurateurs and publicans to solve it. It's time we accepted that the younger generation haven't 'lost' the art of conversation; they never had it to begin with.

Yes, phone bans will revive conversation among an older generation - and cheers to that - but younger people need to be taught face-to-face social skills, and they need it sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent

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