We’re Always a Text Away – But at What Cost?

The new expectation that we always be digitally available creates an unhealthy culture that erases boundaries.

6 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Spectator, the newspaper of Stuyvesant High School in New York City. The original version of the story ran here.

“The rise of rapid-fire communication technology has bred the expectation of people being always on and constantly available,” according to the BBC. Specifically, discourse concerning the hyper-online state of social media, digital contact, and the consequential unrealistic expectations concerning the back-and-forth rhythm of a texting conversation has been growing. This shift applies especially to the “responsibility” of a person to respond to someone else. It has become an expectation for people to be glued to their messaging apps, ready to fire back as soon as they see a message. 

Art credit: Sophia Jin, Stuyvesant HS

As such, when we are all interconnected through the internet, it can become second nature to bank on somebody’s immediate digital availability. Factors like leaving someone on read, having a long response time, being on Do Not Disturb, or the general inability to be contacted are all seen as rude, hostile, or a social faux pas in some way. However, a mere 20 years ago, this phenomenon did not exist.

Personally, I believe that this creates an unhealthy culture where boundaries are pushed in the name of “respect.”  There is an unspoken expectation that once someone sees your message, they should respond as soon as possible because of the ease with which a text can be typed and sent. After all, we no longer live in an age of faxing or messenger pigeons. Yet, the establishment of this lightning-fast response time might be hurting rather than helping us. It is now socially ingrained that since a person can be reached at any moment, it is their duty to maintain a back-and-forth response rhythm around the clock, especially if they are already online.

We see this predominantly on social media platforms where you can see the last moment a user was active. I fall prey to these expectations too—“I can see that they’re active, that they posted a story, interacted with someone else, etc. So why is my DM still on delivered?” Catching myself growing frustrated with somebody for not giving me attention online shows me how much of a gap there can be between expectations of different forms of communication. The social rules of digital etiquette have never been firmly established, making it all too easy to want instantly gratifying communication—the illusion that someone owes you their attention or peace of mind simply because they are aware that you’ve requested it. The rapid growth of social networks while ethics haven’t caught up has led to norms that are detrimental to a healthy popular culture. 

Furthermore, the speculation that is so easily associated with the game that is texting and “ghosting”—withdrawing from contact with someone—is unnecessarily accusatory and fails to consider the many aspects that constitute someone’s mental capacity for interaction. In a way, I find this dangerous. A perceived positive of a hyper-online world and social media is the possibility to find anything at a moment’s notice. A quick look at our generation shows that our attention spans are decreasing and that the “doom-scroll” algorithm of social media can render us out of touch. This can affect our interpersonal relationships in ways we don’t even notice until it’s too late. The speed at which you can discover information from the internet or artificial intelligence can be internalized and projected on real, fallible people. If we lose our ability to distinguish a person from a tool, then it is time to unplug and reconsider the inability of our morals to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the internet.

In this day and age, most people feel comfortable communicating through text. It is easier to create a safe space when you are able to write and react to texts on your own terms, as opposed to your feelings potentially appearing on your face and being open to any interpretation in real-life conversations. Through means such as forums, younger generations are increasingly comfortable with being personal and confessional behind a screen, as well as increasingly expecting others to mirror these comfort levels back to them. Digital communication can serve as a shield that people prefer over face-to-face discussion but it is also inarguably a double-edged sword. Embracing the evolving nature of communication norms and fostering honest conversations is ultimately necessary for healthy connections. Digital availability comes down to contributing factors in both parties, and it is all too easy for that line to be blurred when the method of communication occurs online. 

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