Avoiding the electronic communication trap for teens: An opportunity for mentors


Nesi, J., Widman, L., Choukas-Bradley, S., & Prinstein, M.J. (2016). Technology-based communication and the development of interpersonal competencies within adolescent romantic relationships: A preliminary investigation, Journal of Research on Adolescence Journal of Research on Adolescence. doi:10.1111/jora.12274

Summarized by Benjamin Alford

Introduction: With the convenience and growth of technology in the lives of individuals around the world today, modern technological forms of communication, such as text messaging, social networking, are replacing more traditional forms of communication like conversation in-person and on the phone. While the rapid growth and common use of technology affect all members of society, the effects of technology on adolescents 10-19 years old are especially profound. Research has shown that adolescents frequently use social networking and text messaging to establish and maintain romantic relationships with their counterparts. Instead of resolving conflicts or disclosing sensitive personal or family-related information in person, social networking and text messaging have become the primary form of communication and conflict mediation in relationships.

Text messaging and social networking in romantic relationships can play both positive and negative roles in the lives of adolescents. Text messaging and social networking with romantic partners can provide adolescents a safe area for disclosure and additional avenues to maintain a relationship. Technology-based communication can also be helpful if in-person communication or phone calls are inconvenient or untenable. However, technology-based communication has the potential to be inauthentic and counterproductive as it is more difficult to express emotions, register facial expressions, and empathize with another’s perspective. Such consequences of technology-based communication for adolescents can hurt relationship satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in adulthood.

Although there is extensive literature on the role of technology in the lives of adolescents, the relationship between the frequency of adolescents’ use of technology-based communication and the evolution of their social competencies in romantic relationships is limited. Social competence refers to behaviors and skills that are essential to the stability and satisfaction of interpersonal relationships. In regard to adolescents’ romantic relationships, there are two key features of social competence: “negative assertion (the ability to assert displeasure with others or stand up for oneself) and conflict management (the ability to work through disagreements and solve problems)” (Nesi et al., 1). In addition, the extent to which girls and boys differ in technology use and develop of interpersonal competencies is unclear in the current literature. While boys use technology-based communication less often than girls, girls have better conflict resolution strategies. Girls, the research has shown, are generally more empathetic and less confrontational.

To address this gap in the literature, Nesi and colleagues aimed to explore the relationship between the frequency and pattern of traditional and modern forms of communication among adolescents and the evolution of social competencies in their romantic relationships over one year. The present study also explored whether there would be meaningful differences in associations between technology-based communication with romantic partners and development of social competencies in romantic relationships for adolescent girls and boys. The researchers hypothesized that there would be a negative relationship between more frequent use of technology-based communication with romantic partners and the development of social competencies over time. In addition, Nesi and colleagues hypothesized that the relationship would be more pronounced for boys than for girls.

Method: The sample in the present study consisted of 487 adolescents with a mean age of 14.1 years, majority of which were girls (58%) and Caucasian (48.5%). The participants were students in either in seventh or eighth grade who were in romantic relationships within the past year at the time of the study. Nesi and colleagues received consent forms from the families of the participants in order to conduct the study. The study period lasted for one year.

The participants first reported the extent to which they use traditional communication for social interactions and technology-based communication for social interactions to communicate with romantic partners on a daily basis. In this study, in-person and over the phone communications were labeled as “traditional communications” while text messaging and social network sites such as Facebook and Snapchat were considered “technology-based.” Participants responded to questions such as “How much do you communicate with your dating partners using your voice (in person or phone call) versus using technology on a typical day?” Responses were rated using a 9-point Likert scale ranging from “1=I communicate with my romantic partners mostly in person/on phone calls” to “9=I communicate with my romantic partners mostly using technology. We rarely communicate in person/on phone calls.”

After indicating the extent of their traditional and technological forms of communication, participants then reported interpersonal competencies within their romantic relationships. Participants completed the Interpersonal Competence Questionnaire (ICQ) by responding to statements related to negative assertion and conflict management. Statements related to negative assertion included “Turning down a request by your dating partner is unreasonable” and statements related to conflict management included “Admitting that you might be wrong when a disagreement with your dating partner begins to build into a serious fight.” Using a 5-point Likert scale, participants indicated their responses on a scale from “1=I am very bad at this” to “5=I am very good at this.”

Nesi and colleagues measured negative assertion, conflict management, and proportions of using traditional communication and technology-based communication in social interactions across at two different time points.

Results: The frequency of technology-based communication use and traditional communication use for social interaction with partners were variable in nature. Approximately 34.9% of participants reported that they devote roughly equal amounts of time communicating with romantic partners via traditional forms of communication and technology-based communication. Roughly equal percentages of the participants reported greater frequencies and preferences either for use of traditional communication (32.3%) or use of technology-based communication (32.8%) in social interactions with romantic partners.

As predicted, there was a negative relationship between technology-based communication as the primary form of social interactions with romantic partners and development of social competency over one year. Participants, in other words, who relied more heavily on technology-based communication tended to have more difficulty in expressing negative assertion and managing conflicts with romantic partners.

Similar to the first hypothesis, the second hypothesis was supported as well. The relationship between technology-based interaction with romantic partners and social competencies for boys and girls differed over time. Boys scored lower in conflict management over the duration of the study, and the relationship between technology-based communication and social competencies was more pronounced for them.

Implications: The results of the present study underscore the notion that technological forms of communication are changing the dynamics of adolescents’ romantic relationships. While text messaging and social networking are convenient for adolescents in maintaining their romantic relationships, adolescents miss out on opportunities to practice vital social skills. Adolescents are therefore inadvertently depriving themselves of chances to establish and maintain interpersonal skills in a critical period of development, skills that can be used in complex situations and with various people beyond the context of their current romantic relationship. The downsides of the increasing absence of face-to-face communication are pronounced for all adolescents, but especially for boys who indicated lower levels of conflict management than girls. Given that boys are generally more confrontational than girls, a balance between technology-based communication and traditional forms of communication is especially important in enhancing their confidence in effectively managing conflicts.

In order to help adolescents establish and maintain mutually beneficial and meaningful relationships with others, adults in mentorship programs can play a role. Adults should encourage a healthy balance between using traditional and digital forms of social interactions. Adults can suggest the use of FaceTime and Skype, both of which are tools that can allow youth to have face-to-face conversations if in-person interaction is inconvenient due to the rigors of school or not living in close proximity to one another. This way, adolescents can deal with conflicts more effectively, experience a more intimate connection, and improve communication skills.

In a group mentoring setting, mentors could incorporate role-playing and theater-related activities in order to allow adolescents to develop and practice their social and conflict resolution skills. Role-playing and theater-related activities can help provide youth the confidence to combat complex situations in interpersonal relationships. Adolescents do not have to simulate exact problems or situations in their relationships, but can simulate more broad and common problems that inevitably arise in any relationship. This way, they can establish and maintain foundational skills in social interactions, providing their mentees with the necessary skills they will need to navigate socially as they grow older.