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Professor and author Sherry Turkle is all for the idea of ‘sacred spaces’ – declaring kitchens, dining tables and cars screen-free zones, either always or at designated times.Rob Kim/Getty Images

There was woefully little conversation inside Toronto's Terroni restaurant on a bright afternoon last month. The southern Italian trattoria is the kind of place you imagine filled with loud talk and family togetherness. Instead, a father thumbed his smartphone surreptitiously in his lap as the bartender tried to entertain his young son. Two Australian men gasped with the waiter about the homemade pasta but went quiet every time he walked away, each picking up a ginormous iPhone and forking the dishes absent-mindedly, faces bathed in synthetic blue light. Across from them, a teenage girl glowered as her father typed on his phone in silence.

To sit and watch such exchanges is profoundly depressing. Yet we all do it: Slipping a phone onto the table, we put the people in front of us on pause to disappear into the vast elsewheres of our screens. Whether we're texting with others who are not present, scanning irrelevant Internet minutiae or enjoying the neurochemical hit of a Facebook like, many of us now routinely interrupt face time with loved ones to scratch the itch of online distraction. American adults check their phones every 6 1/2 minutes, or approximately 150 times a day. Collectively in Canada, we send 224 million text messages a day while actual phone calls decline.

As we move in and out of paying attention, our conversations become light, losing much of their empathetic possibility. Our relationships start slipping into what researchers call an "absent presence." We notice and don't like it, but can't seem to help ourselves.

These are the troubling dynamics mined by Sherry Turkle in her pivotal new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In it, the renowned media scholar from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pleads with us to do tech better. To investigate the sentiment "I'd rather text than talk," Turkle spent five years interviewing families, students, academics and employers about the ways we speak – and don't speak – to each other today. What's become abundantly clear to her is that our love affair with screen time is getting us into serious interpersonal trouble.

Even as we claim to "connect" more than ever before via text, chat, e-mail and social media, we don't really listen intently any more amid the constant interruption. We grow easily bored and tap away at our phones, letting others carry conversations that don't immediately captivate us. We make excuses for this odious social habit, blaming pushy bosses and "family emergencies," knowing full well that's not the truth of it: We check our phones compulsively because we're extremely vulnerable to their allure. Although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent cop to doing it anyway.

Like the rest of us, Turkle loves the "magic" her phone brings her but thinks it's high time technology was put in its place. She and other researchers stress that the benefits of real-time, face-to-face conversation – phones off the table – can't be understated. The shortlist of what it fosters includes empathy, above all else, but also trust, discovery, democratic debate, patience, mentorship and self-knowledge, as well as learning to tolerate the occasional uncomfortable silence.

"All of that dance of conversation," Turkle says in an interview from New York. "Why have we been so quick to say, 'That's just not important now?'"

Unlike other alarm calls on technology, her book actually drills down for answers to why we downgrade face time for the more flighty connections available through our screens. Much of it comes down to exerting control over our precious time, says Turkle, who has dubbed the phenomenon the "Goldilocks effect." Overwhelmed by all the input coming in at us, we use texts and e-mails to keep people not too close and not too far away – just the right distance, given the time allotted. She describes the duplicitous technique of "phubbing": College kids have learned how to maintain eye contact with people while typing at lightning speed on their phones under the table (the effect is zombie-like).

Phone calls have come to irritate us because they're unwieldy and can't be corralled like a quick text or e-mail. According to the Pew Research Center, teens now find talking to new friends on the phone "awkward" and "weird." (As one respondent explained it, "You typically text them because you don't really have anything to talk about.") Turkle explains that with conversation, "you can't control what you're going to say, you can't edit it, you can't shut it off and you can't time-shift it – it has to be when it's happening." Some of her interviewees now limit their fights with families and partners to text, e-mail or instant message to avoid getting too heated in person and to better command the outcome.

Experts worry that this dodging of face time is creating a deep empathy gap: As we keep a firmer grip over our exchanges and our time, we reveal less of ourselves and attend less to one another.

Multiple empathy studies have shown that a phone on the table hinders conversation and stunts compassion, whether you use that phone or not. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. Contemporary college kids were staggeringly less likely than students in the seventies and eighties to agree with statements such as, "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective." Just as empathy appears to be taking a nose dive, narcissism is on the upswing. "People simply might not have time to reach out to others and express empathy in a world … [of] technology revolving around personal needs and self-expression," wrote the Michigan researchers.

Boston clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair believes that we're losing our capacity to stay attuned to each other amid the constant interruption. "People get antsy," says Steiner-Adair, author of the 2014 book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. "We're losing the ability to be thoughtful and responsive to one another, to stay focused on another person over time. It's: 'I'm only on one screen – your face. That's not stimulating enough.'"

Rather than getting accustomed to these new norms, "People are getting more vocal about the fact that it's annoying and that it hurts," says Steiner-Adair. "It's not making people happy."

The most troubling manifestation of our flight from conversation is familial, with some parents so enraptured by their new iPhone 6 that they routinely ignore their kids. Take the father at Terroni whose despondent teenage daughter sent him daggers as he tinkered with his phone at the table: Her phone was nowhere in sight, unusual for a "digital native."

While we wring our hands about teens and their ever-present phones, it seems later-adopter parents are the real culprits. Steiner-Adair interviewed children who were allowed to play video games on their phones through dinner while their parents scanned their own devices. Something about it all stung for the kids: Did their parents find them boring? Why didn't they want to talk to them? Another daughter complained about the way her tennis games with her father had changed: Things just weren't the same since dad started sneaking peeks at his phone every time they changed sides. "We don't make eye contact any more when he hands me the ball. He's checking his phone," the young woman told Steiner-Adair.

In one of the more dispiriting vignettes in Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle interviews a dad who keeps one eye on his daughter during bath time and the other on his e-mail, something he wouldn't have dreamed of doing with his older children when smartphones weren't omnipresent. Although he recognizes that tuning out of this moment is incredibly shortsighted, the father says he can't help himself. He's bored.

Instead of getting the attention they deserve from the adults in their lives, kids are getting a confusing emotional distance instead.

Our massive conversation fail needs a drastic fix, but Turkle, for one, is optimistic that we've arrived at a turning point: "Ten years ago people were still at the party celebrating how incredible all this was. I think the party is kind of winding down. We're at a point of inflection: A lot of people believe that we need to attend to our digital environment."

Turkle is personally all for "sacred spaces" – declaring kitchens, dining tables and cars screen-free zones, either always or at designated times. She notes the rise of weekly tech "sabbaticals," as well as device-free summer camps and retreats for "tech detoxing." Managers are asking employees to drop devices into a basket as they enter meetings so they don't spend the entire time tuned out, quietly cleaning out their inboxes. Teachers are setting aside class time for "tools down" conversation, when students stop multitasking on laptops and actually listen and debate issues together. Groups of friends play the stack game when they're out for dinner: All devices get stacked up into a tower; the first person to respond to a ring or beep pays the tab.

"This all shows just how powerful these tools are, how vulnerable we are and how hard it is to regulate," says Steiner-Adair. "We have to get smarter about how the human brain interacts with these very powerful tools. We have to learn how to outsmart our smartphones."

Some are now agitating for a broader overhaul in design: Google "product philosopher" Tristan Harris is mobilizing a new movement of entrepreneurs, engineers and designers working on "empowering design" – technology that demands we use the Internet with greater intention. Harris's vision for a new breed of apps, websites and screens would connect us without sucking us down the rabbit hole, and disconnect us without omitting anything really important.

Harris believes his "Time Well Spent" campaign could become a new cultural value, such as organic food and green-certified buildings. As Turkle puts it in her book, "We can become different kinds of consumers of technology, just as we have become different kinds of consumers of food. … What tempts does not necessarily nourish."

Of course the idea of regulating tech use with yet more tech is rich; Turkle agrees, calling it an "ironic rejoinder." Still, all of these efforts form a heartfelt mission to turn down the noise when we are in each other's company.

"Technology makes us forget what we know about life," says Turkle. "We're at a moment in the culture where we are reminding ourselves of where we are."


Apps to help you unplug

Disconcertingly, 82 per cent of smartphone users said they rarely (if ever) powered off their phones last year, while less than 43 per cent of 13- to 18-year-olds saw any value in ever going unplugged. Sounding the alarm in her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle advocates for moderation – as well as a "more mature technology" that would encourage us to disengage instead of sucking us in. A number of apps have come onto the market in recent years that aim to get us switching off our devices and tuning back in to the people in front of us.

  • DinnerTime Plus stresses the importance of the family meal together. The app calls children to dinner with a prompt and then lets parents remotely disable their kids’ Android phones for the duration of the meal. “Have some conversation with your family,” reads a message on the kids’ screens, which then counts down how many minutes their phones will be shut off for. (A note to parents: Maybe turn off your phones, too.)
  • Another app, Moment Family (tagline: “Put down your phone and get back to your life”) allows families to track how much time everyone is spending on their iPhones and iPads. Users can set daily limits for themselves and also reserve device-free dinners. Once the app is activated, phones emit a blaring noise if anyone tries to sneak screen time mid-meal. (Options include an alarm-clock buzzer, a siren and, notably, the “most annoying sound ever” from the film Dumb & Dumber.)
  • Taking another route, “conversation-starter apps” such as A Family Matters give stumped parents hints on how to engage their kids when they’re out in the world together. Stressing family bonding instead of video games babysitting children, the app offers hundreds of open-ended questions to choose from for various contexts, be it a road trip, grocery-store lineup or doctor’s waiting room.
  • Rather than dictating a family’s conversation, apps such as Checky do something simpler: They shame us for how rabidly we scan our phones, the goal being to reduce usage. Checky tracks and even maps out your phone habits and crunches the numbers for you. As in, you checked your phone 25 times at Mom’s dinner last Sunday: Get a grip.