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How Technology Helps You Stay Connected

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD

Lorna just had to get in touch with someone: "I had to tell my best friend that I was going to ask a boy out. I tried calling her but couldn't get through so I emailed her and then I spoke to her on MSN. Without technology I would not have been able to tell her."

Staying connected to friends and family is important for our emotional health and well-being. That's why we asked our readers to tell us how cell phones, email, IM, blogs, text messaging, and personal pages help them keep in touch. More than 1,500 responded.

Most of you told us you couldn't live without technology: 80% of our survey takers ages 13 to 17 said they absolutely need technology to stay in touch. Almost 30% said they'd be completely out of the loop without their cell phones, IM, and other methods of communication.

Good News Travels Faster

What do you do when you've got news you need to share now? Most of our survey takers say they try to reach their friends by phone. But if they don't reach them, they use IM, email, and text messaging to get the word out.

"I got my learner's permit and I wanted to tell the girls but I couldn't get hold of them," says Jerrica. "So I told most of them on MSN."

"I have to tell my friends a lot of things right then and there so I use AIM, email, or MySpace," Charles said.

Lots of people use one way of communicating — like text messaging — to get a friend's attention and then switch to another where they can talk in more detail. "A boy I had a crush on for ages asked me out and I had to tell my best friend," said Sabeiha. "We always tell each other everything there and then when it happens. So I texted her to come online so we could talk properly."

Some news is more fun to share when you can see or hear a friend's reaction in person. Nicolas told us how a friend who finished third in a national contest used technology to build suspense without revealing her news right away: "She sent me a text message saying she'd be at my place half an hour later, then she called me 10 minutes later to say that I had to get ready to go out. Finally, she arrived at my place and told me in person."

Hannah, agrees about the benefits of sharing good news face to face: "It's more exciting to tell them in person," she said.

Technology Can Help Our Social Lives

Technology helps people do everything from planning to meet for a movie to keeping in touch with a friend who lives in a different country.

When planning to get together with friends, Julian said, "The easiest and fastest way I know is to send a text message to my contact group."

Jocelyn said, "If I want to go see a movie with a few friends I usually text message them. By telephone, you have to call every single friend one by one. But text messaging allows you to send the same message to as many people as you'd like, which saves a lot of time."

Text messaging or IM seem to work for lots of people. But other people prefer to call. Rawaa said she made plans online with a friend to meet at the mall. "It didn't work, we each went to a different mall. I think we should have talked on the phone."

Situations like these make many people double-check their plans. Heather told us, "I usually make plans on the phone or e-mail to begin, but finalize details using text messages."

Email, IM, and other low-cost methods of communication also help people maintain long-distance friendships in ways they couldn't have even a few years ago.

Zoe told us, "I had this friend when I was 8 or 9, then she moved away to the country. We promised to stay friends and to send letters, and at the start we did. Then the letters got less and less frequent and eventually they stopped. I think if I had had email, I would still be in touch."

"I have a friend who went to Canada to study," Jasmine told us. "Telephone calls would be expensive, so the only 'free' way is through e-mails or IM."

James found out about cost the hard way: "I called my friend in New Zealand, which is halfway around the world, and it cost me over $200! So now I just stay up late to see if I can catch them on MSN or I write letters."

Email, IM, and other low-cost ways of keeping in touch also allow people to develop brief acquaintances into long-lasting friendships. Andrea told us, "After I had to evacuate from the hurricane I went to a school in Chicago. I met this really cool girl. We sometimes email each other. It's nice to talk to her since it's been over half a year."

Technology Can Help Solve Problems

Whether you're struggling with a math problem at midnight or need to talk about something personal, technology helps you reach out and get the help you need.

Homework Help

Cell phones and online communications are the methods most of you use to get homework help late at night. Barbara told us, "At night, it's not very polite to call friends' house phones. So usually I call my friends' cell phones or go online instead."

"Ugh. Math," said Angel. "I was learning pi and was stuck. I IM'd my cousin and she knew the answer. I didn't get detention the next day."

"I was stuck with my German homework and I texted my friend to ask her how to do it," Kirsti told us.

Jessica told us, "My friends and I always help each other with homework through instant messaging. It is quick and easy."

Sometimes, though, chatting online can get you and your friends off the topic of homework. Christy told us about a time she got homework help from a friend over IM: "I stayed up till midnight asking a friend. But we wasted half of the time chatting."

Personal Problems

Online communication methods like email and IM can be a great way for some people to manage personal problems — even if it just means venting and getting things off your chest. Kendra told us, "When me and my mom got into a fight, I just IM'd my friends and then I cooled down."

Haley said, "I have a good friend I always ask for advice or when I need to let go of steam using e-mail or IM."

Angel told us, "When my grandpa died, I really needed to let it out and talk to someone. There is always someone online in my contacts. It made me feel a lot better to know there is always someone there."

For lots of you, it's most important to get support while still keeping things private when discussing personal problems online. Wesley told us, "One time, I had a terrible emergency that I just needed to talk about. I first attempted to call someone, but their line was busy, so I IM'd with them instead. I also use IM when the problem is embarrassing."

"When my self-esteem was very low I talked to a lot of people over the Internet," said Gina. "I worry my parents would listen in to my phone convos at home."

Privacy is one reason lots of people like to talk about personal stuff in person. Cailley told us, "If I have personal problems, I find it easier and a lot more useful to talk in person. That way I'm sure there are no interruptions or unwanted listeners."

Brandon had this to say about talking over problems online: "I would never do that because someone might get hold of the info because of technology these days."

"You don't know if a person is reading the IM behind their back," said Carmine.

Jessica told us why she chose to talk in person about a problem she was having: "I talked about it with my friend and we took a walk. She talked about her problems, and I talked about mine. We both listened and helped each other. It helped a lot more verbally than just typing." Another good thing about talking over problems while you and a friend take a walk is that you can get some exercise at the same time — and exercise is a great mood lifter!

Not everyone wants to talk problems over in person, though. Nikki said, "I find it very hard to talk openly about my problems because I just can't get my words out. I've found that instant messaging and texting people has really helped me to stop bottling things up because I've been able to tell people my problems without having to sit down face to face in that awkward silence."

The bottom line is that different things work for different people and you just have to do what works best for you. It may not be the same thing that works for your friends, but that's OK. Maybe you're like Mona, who told us, "Personal problems are best talked about in person." Or perhaps you're like Jocelyn, who said, "Sometimes I think it's easier to work out problems with friends by instant messaging them, emailing them, or leaving a comment on their MySpace."

In Touch or In Trouble?

Of course, the key to making technology work for you is using it wisely. We all know people who have found themselves in trouble when an email or text message they sent was forwarded to the wrong person or read — and spread — by other people.

Brooke told us, "I was on MySpace and I put up a bulletin for my friend but everyone read it and then the next day everyone in the whole school was talking about it. I was so red the whole day and everyone kept asking me. It was the worst thing I've ever done!!!"

Amanda told us, "I would sometimes email my friends something I wouldn't want anyone else to know. But once I told my best friend something and someone else went on there and I got in HUGE trouble." Because of this, she thinks "It's better to tell someone in person."

Most of our survey takers agreed, with 61% saying it's best to have difficult conversations in person and 30% saying it's best to do so over the phone. But in some situations, going online can help make awkward conversations easier.

"I asked a guy to a dance and I was very nervous so I didn't want to do it in person," said Barbara. "I talked to him about it online and it was much easier."

The general rule here is it's OK to ask someone out via text, IM, or online — but it's definitely not OK to break up with someone that way. Kelsey told us, "One of my ex-boyfriends broke up with me through text message. Instead of letting me know in person how he felt he just sent me a text and it was really lame. It made me think a lot lower of him."

Just like anything else, technology is best kept in perspective. If you think you're using it too much, you probably are! Jessica told us this about her blogging experience: "I would just type whatever happened, but I soon realized that no one really cared since they didn't even know my first name! I soon quit that site and I have much more free time to be social."

Pamela summed it up nicely when she made this comment about IM: "Beware! It's addicting!"

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2006