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The Lost Art of Eye Contact in the Digital Age

Our eyes are more frequently on screens than on human faces.

Key points

  • Eye contact is not just a social signal but a complex interaction vital for human connection.
  • When two people make eye contact, neural activity synchronizes, enhancing communication and understanding.
  • People who avoid eye contact often find developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships challenging.
  • Addressing this decline in eye contact requires conscious effort and cultural shifts.

Every day, as I walk down the halls of George Mason’s College of Public Health, I see the heads of students, faculty, and staff buried deep into their digital devices. Phones have made us always on and available, responding to the digital pings of friends, colleagues, children, parents, or caregivers seeking an immediate response to an idea, question, or post. So, while we might be working, sharing a like or a smile, a wink, or a hello, we also are missing an opportunity for simple eye contact.

I see this as a fundamental shift in our interpersonal communications capacity. Raised in a rural environment where greeting each person with a smile or a nod was commonplace, I find it increasingly difficult to catch someone’s eye. This has me wondering about the implications of our diverted gazes on our culture and social well-being, the capacity for deep connection and, therefore, empathy among the next generation, and how we might approach addressing this growing concern.

Bicanski / Pixnio
A student looks at her phone.
Source: Bicanski / Pixnio

The Shift in Gaze

Our modern lifestyle locks our eyes more frequently on screens than on human faces. Whether it's in public transportation, cafes, or even during intimate gatherings, people are more often engrossed in a digital world. This change is not merely a shift in where we look but fundamentally how we connect and interact with others. In the academic corridors, this shift prompts a critical inquiry: when do we truly look at each other? As an educator, it concerns me deeply that the opportunity for spontaneous, genuine connections—so vital for building trust and understanding—is being overshadowed by the lure of glowing screens.

Scientific Insights Into Eye Contact

Eye contact is not just a social signal; it is a complex, brain-stimulating interaction that is vital for human connection. Neuroscience research shows that when two people make eye contact, their neural activity synchronizes, enhancing communication and understanding. This phenomenon, known as interbrain synchrony, fosters a shared sense of purpose and emotional state. As a dean, I ponder the implications of this science on our teaching methods and student interactions. Are we nurturing an environment that encourages these meaningful connections, or are we succumbing to the ease of digital communication?

Direct eye contact stimulates specific brain regions tied to social cognition and empathy. These areas include the prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus. They are essential for decoding another person's emotions and intentions, serving as critical components in the architecture of empathy.

Eye Contact and Social Skills

Individuals who avoid eye contact often find it challenging to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships. This avoidance can lead to social anxiety, where the fear of negative evaluation or the discomfort caused by eye contact exacerbates feelings of social inadequacy. In educational settings, it is crucial to address these patterns early, encouraging students to engage more openly and confidently in face-to-face interactions, thus breaking the cycle of anxiety and isolation.

Three Ways to Enhance Eye Contact for a More Engaged Life

  1. Mindful Communication Practices: Encouraging students and staff to maintain eye contact during conversations can significantly enhance understanding and connection. This can be integrated into classroom settings, advising sessions, and even casual interactions on campus, reinforcing the importance of personal connection.
  2. Tech-Free Zones: Establishing areas or times where technology use is minimized or prohibited can help foster more genuine interactions. These zones could be in common areas, dining halls, or specific times during the day when students and faculty are encouraged to engage with each other without the barrier of screens.
  3. Eye Contact Exercises: Integrating simple exercises designed to improve eye contact comfort into student orientations or staff training can be highly beneficial. These practices can help reduce the anxiety associated with direct interaction, making eye contact more natural and engaging.

Reviving Eye Contact in the Digital Age

Addressing the decline in eye contact in our digital era requires conscious effort and cultural shifts within educational institutions. We can champion environments that promote face-to-face interactions and prioritize real human connections over digital exchanges. Encouraging more meaningful eye contact can help mitigate the impact of screen time, ensuring a balanced approach to technology use. By fostering an environment that values and promotes eye contact, we prepare our students not only for academic success but for a richer, more empathetic engagement with the world around them. Plus, fostering eye contact and decreasing loneliness will have lasting positive benefits throughout their lives by teaching them to embrace the everyday multidimensional world awaiting them beyond the confines of their screens.

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