Tamara J Hicks Psy.D.

The Digital Self

Why Have Teens Stopped Emailing? And Should We All?

When did email stop being fun?

Posted Oct 15, 2010

This is an easy question to answer. Email isn't fun. Fifteen years ago when many people started emailing for the first time it was fabulously fun and made life easier in many ways. There was a simpler way of staying in contact with others. This relieved guilt and saved time (good bye letter writing and long drawn out phone conversations). It was exciting to boot up and see that you had email in your inbox, especially since the emails were positive.

Fast-forward 15-years and boy have things surely changed. Many of my patients discuss the continual stress and heightened anxiety caused by their email. Having to check and respond to work and personal email in the evening is often used as an excuse as to why they are not getting exercise, spending more time with friends and family, sleeping 8 hours, or having much fun in life. Due to these phenomena in my practice I have been querying individuals. I have been asking one simple question, "Do you enjoy emailing?" Not a single one answered in the affirmative.

Here were some of the complaints:

• Email is a time and fun sucker. I spend hours catching up on email every night.

• I do work at home for hours and don't get compensated for it.

• It feels as if 90% of my emails are negative. Some problem I have to solve.

• People used to give you a few days to respond but now if you haven't responded by the end of the day an annoyed email is likely to follow.

• People misinterpret my tone in emails and not in a positive way.

• A surgeon stated that he gets an average of 200 emails a day that can't be answered at work because he is working so he answers them at 9pm at night when he should be spending that time with his family or relaxing. If he misses a couple of days it becomes impossible to catch up so occasionally he must claim email bankruptcy and wipe the slate clean.

• A 15 year-old said, "email. who has email?"

At first, I was surprised that so many teenagers have nothing to do with emailing but then psychologically it makes perfect sense. Teens do not like to feel the pressure of having to do anything. When something becomes stressful for them they are experts at figuring a way out.

As for the surgeon mentioned above it is fascinating that so much has been said regarding employees not checking their personal email at work. There are filters and ways companies have blocked this from happening. Interestingly, there has been significantly less dialogue about the contrary i.e. around work intruding into the life of the employee. This seems to be bordering on a labor issue. Employees are generally not given extra time in their day to respond to work emails and they are certainly not compensated for the 8-20 hours at home that they are working via email. The time has come for companies to develop a more employee friendly email program and for it to be clearly stated in the company's policy and procedures. No doubt, email can be an amazing work place tool but only within a system of realistic expectations and recognition of the stress that can occur as well as appropriate compensation for time worked.

Last year a friend of mine, along with her family, spent a year living in Italy. Before she left she had decided that their mode of communication would be letter writing and not emails. They would sit down together as a family and write letters. Having written a few to her myself I had forgotten the thoughtfulness that goes into a letter. What do you write it on, what do you include or not include, for some reason the act of sitting in a comfortable chair by the window as I wrote urged me to be more personal then I would have been in an email. Additionally, one takes the time to write complete sentences that are grammatically correct. Email seems to be an excuse to write like a 6-year-old. At the end of the year all of the letters the family received were put into an album to elicit memories in the future.

There are two people in my life that still write letters to me, my grandmother in Arkansas and my sister-in-law in Manhattan. They both write beautifully and I look forward to getting in bed at night and slowly reading what is happening in their lives. I am ashamed to admit that I rarely reciprocate probably because I am too busy responding to the 100 emails I get each day. I promise to do better. I promise this because email has become unhealthy. Predominantly, it causes stress, anxiety, guilt and rarely joy. It limits authentic person-to-person engagement.

I would like to find a way to limit the negative consequence of emailing while keeping the conveniences. It surely is easier to plan a meeting or to communicate with fellow book club members through emailing. I have a fantasy about joining those teenagers I spoke to and closing down my email accounts but I am probably not brave enough to do it. In the meantime, I will promise to not hit "reply all" and junk up the inbox of others. I will end email communications with several people and begin letter writing instead. Maybe I will be so bold to have an out going response that says I only check my email once a week and I might not get to your email. If you need to get in touch with me, please call or write or stop by.

About the Authors

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., has a private practice in New York where he provides psychotherapy to adults and couples.

Tamara J. Hicks, Psy.D., is co-founder of Potrero Hill Psychotherapy in San Francisco and provides psychotherapy to adults, children, couples, and families.

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