Smartphone as babysitter? Not smart

Senior writer Cheong Suk Wai (far right) with readers at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday.
Senior writer Cheong Suk Wai (far right) with readers at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday. ST PHOTO: TAN YU LIN

The zippy way to connect, known as smartphone texting, can also be a big social trap, said most of the 50 participants at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday.

Among them was private tutor Angel Yeo, 39, who was told by her students that her texts were "weird" and "formal" because she wrote them in full, grammatical sentences.

She said: "I text in full sentences because I want to convey my intentions clearly and precisely. If I do so in broken English with acronyms like 'LOL' and smiley faces, my recipients might not get the right tone.

"I text in full sentences because, as their teacher, it helps me keep my distance from them. And if I don't set the example of good grammar, how can I correct them?"

She said she fretted about how dedicated texters would cope with contracts and other formal documents in future. "Even my younger colleagues ask me very basic things like, 'Does an apostrophe come before or after the letter S?'"

She made these points during a discussion on American sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle's new book, Reclaiming Conversation.

Turkle, a longtime don at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, argued that people are losing their ability to empathise with one another because they prefer texting, in which they could choose when and how to respond to telephone or face-to-face chats, in which they were unable to fake their body language.

Young people, she wrote, found interacting in person awkward and boring.

Being glued to one's smartphone screen has resulted in many people becoming very impatient and self- absorbed, said reader Tina Wah, 61, noting how many youngsters had to compete with smartphones for their parents' attention.

Retiree Michael Seah lamented how, after three days of chatting on mobile messaging service WhatsApp, he and his secondary schoolmates still could not agree on when and where to have lunch. Fed up with the inconclusive ding-donging, he finally rang his friend and said: "Next Tuesday, 12pm. Are you free?"

In that five-minute chat, he and his friend also asked after each other's families. "I agree completely with Turkle," he added. "The warmth of a voice and its nuances cannot be captured in phone texts."

But Ms Mercy Lum, a meet regular, argued that texting and other social media are only tools, and that she and her peers knew well enough when these were, and were not, appropriate. "If it's really urgent, I call the other person. If it can wait, I send an SMS. Otherwise, an e-mail will do," she said.

Financial consultant Madhav Bhave, 64, said that in ancient times, people sent messages by horseback. "The smartphone is just a horse; the way people communicate has not changed."

Readers then pondered the $64,000 question: If, as Turkle insisted, face-to-face conversations were so crucial to humanity, why was it that most people today preferred texting?

That led them to muse that parents everywhere had to set a good example for their children and not, as Ms Lum said, "use the iPad as a babysitter".

On why youths preferred texting, national serviceman Dion Lim, 18, said: "We are conditioned to be constantly entertained. When we have to consider the interests of other people, texting does not have much to teach you.

"You have to put yourself out there and people of my generation don't practise that enough. Texting is our way to escape, a flight from conversation."

• The next Big Read Meet will feature Singaporean author Alan John, the former deputy editor of The Straits Times. He will speak on his new book, Good Grief!, at the Central Public Library, NLB headquarters, 100 Victoria Street, on Feb 24 at 6.30pm. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary.

• Good Grief!: Everything I Know About Love, Life And Loss I Wish Somebody Had Told Me Sooner, is available at $22 with GST from bookstores here from tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Smartphone as babysitter? Not smart'. Print Edition | Subscribe