On its face, you may think there’s nothing wrong with using a smartphone or digital media player to connect with some one who is nearby. But not being face-to-face has its consequences—some fairly obvious, some not so much.

The accident risk when taking your eyes off the road to type in text or read the screen exceeds the risk when driving while drunk. «There are simple limits to our multitasking abilities,» says Stacey Hanke, a Chicago-based management consultant. «We can’t safely drive a car while typing on a keyboard or reading a screen. The human mind simply isn’t capable of operating this way.» Hanke calls such behavior «micro communication madness.»

Practice Self-Control

Here’s some good advice on how to rein yourself in if you’re one of the perpetrators:

• Text before you drive and try to relish your sense of completion.

• Place your device out of reach while driving, such as in your handbag or briefcase, or even in the trunk, to help you resist temptation.

• Turn off your device to silence the alluring sound of an incoming text or notification.

• If you can’t resist, pull off the road at a safe location.

• Plan to take communication breaks.

Many states are toughening penalties for texting while driving, but many people feel it’s not enough. A recent poll by Poll Position considers that more than one-half of Americans believed that those caught texting while driving should lose their driver’s license for a period of time.

Young people, who tend to be heavier texters than others, with most in the 18 to 29 age group, don’t favor license loss. On the other hand, two-thirds of those 65 and older believe license loss is an appropriate punishment.

Declining People Skills

Overreliance on texting also can have a deleterious effect on social development. Technology psychologist Sherry Turkle, PhD, expresses her fear that electronic communication for some people can compromise the ability of having a real conversation and reflecting when alone.

Turkle believes people give electronic devices human qualities and treat each other as objects.

This is a seasoned argument, going back at least to Karl Marx, but it’s a good one. We should master our technology rather than become its slave.

Set Ground Rules

If you’re a parent, one way to help your children is to establish texting-free zones and times. If kids are hanging out with friends and everyone is texting, all’s good. But kids can be taught that responding to a text or initiating one when somebody, particularly an adult, is talking to them is rude, communicating the message that the other person isn’t all that interesting. Parents can specify that there’s no texting at the dinner table or at other times when you’re trying to engage them in face-to-face conversation.

But it’s not only young people who are guilty. Adults dining together at a restaurant or who are guests at a dinner party who look down at their hands, held not so discretely just below the table, communicate the same message: «I find this conversation more interesting than yours.»

Just as with excessive computer gaming, online shopping, and most other attractions of the digital age, texting also is a sedentary activity. It may provide instant gratification, but it can’t compete with riding a bike, skipping rope, playing ball, or taking a walk for physical and emotional development.

Perhaps the single most dangerous risk to the texting craze is potentially losing the ability to concentrate on a single task. Imagine a future society in which doctors, engineers, and police officers feel compelled to report to others their every move as it’s happening.

Many texts largely are free of any real intellectual or emotional content, along the nature of «wats up,» «nuttin just hangin’,» and «cool.» Still, they provide little hits of adrenaline, and it’s those adrenaline hits that can be so addicting.

By Reid Goldsborough

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