Teens Connecting with Others: Reflective Communication



How we communicate with one another has changed dramatically in the modern age. Today, we are using digital technology more and more to communicate with our friends, families and coworkers. Research[1] shows that texting is the primary method of communication between teenagers, 12-17 years, proving to be more popular than face to face interactions.

Social connection is vital to our well-being. Our brains are wired to connect with others and neuroscientist, Matthew Lieberman[2], argues that the need to connect is even more fundamental than our need for food or water. Given that being social is so intrinsic to who we are, it is important that we develop the tools to communicate and connect with others in a positive way both face-to-face and via digital technology. 

In this video a secondary school educator teaches her students the skills to become better communicators.  Through various reflective activities they explore nonverbal communication, verbal communication, digital communication and the importance of being active listeners as well as speakers. The prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain continues to develop into their early twenties and therefore these activities can influence this development by helping teens engage in better decision-making. 

Communicating via digital media may also mean that adolescents are missing out on learning effective communication skills that involve nonverbal communication such as interpreting facial expressions, using eye contact and appropriate tone of voice and volume, along with body posture and personal space. Positive social interaction relies on the ability to understand nonverbal social cues and adapt our behavior in response to others’ verbal and nonverbal reactions. The ability to effectively process emotional cues is linked to many positive outcomes [3]and is critical in making and maintaining friendships, finding and holding down jobs, and doing well academically. Research[4] suggests that increased opportunities for social interaction, along with less screen time, can enhance the understanding of nonverbal emotional cues. In this video, the students participate in a fun nonverbal activity which challenges them to communicate without words.

Given how pervasive digital technology is in teenagers’ lives and within their communication with one another, in this video the teacher uses an interactive activity to explore verbal and digital communication with her class. She highlights the importance of providing students opportunities to reflect about how digital communication can be used responsibly and effectively, as well as how to best integrate this technology in their lives to maximize its potential.

More screen time means adolescents often spend less time communicating face to face, and therefore have less practice engaging with one another and learning how to become good communicators[5]. The video also showcases students engaged in another activity where they are encouraged to partner share and play the role of the listener. The teacher highlights the importance of the role of both the speaker and the listener in effectively conveying a message in communication.[6]

Classroom Application:

It’s an exciting time to be a teenager- in this digital age adolescents can communicate, connect, collaborate and create with a myriad of people both near and far.

As the educator in the video has shown, there are various ways educators can help adolescent learn how to be both effective face-to-face communicators and responsible digital citizens.

Classroom Activity Extension:

Educators can harness digital devices to help teach the art of conversation:

  • Use smartphones to record class debates, conversations and presentations.  A lesson could focus on students assessing their own oral communication strengths and weaknesses.  Students could also be invited to critique each other as this could assist students in becoming more accustomed to receiving constructive criticism. 
  • Ask students to create podcasts in small groups. This can help demonstrate student ability to speak about issues in real time.

Encourage students to be self-reflective about how they use digital technology.

For example, ask them to think about and discuss in small groups:

  • Whether communicating via text or online benefits or harms their relationships with others.
  • How does spending time online make them feel? Eg. Connected? Lonely? Inspired? Empty? 
  • The reasons why they take selfies and how they feel about the use of this practice.
  • The permanency of their online life and how future employers or education institutions can view what they have been posting over the years.


The PEW Research Center found that, in the US, texting is the dominant daily mode of communication between teens and all those with whom they communicate.

Knapp & Hall (2013) in their book, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, outline current research and theory on nonverbal communication and its impact on our interactions. 

A field study, by Uhls et al. (2014), found that after five days interacting face-to-face without the use of any screen-based media, preteens’ recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly  for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes. 

Here are some useful tips to share with your students on how to become a good communicators: 

Tips for teaching your students good conversational skills: 

In Social, psychologist Matthew Lieberman explores research in social neuroscience, revealing that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. Because of this, our brain uses its spare time to learn about the social world- other people and our relation to them.