West Lafayette, Indiana - Communication skills hampered by smart phones, engaging in mob mentality, anonymity of communicating online and a lack of willingness to hear the other side during the presidential election are fueling incivility among virtual friends and in online communities, according to a Purdue University communication expert.

“Whether the locus of our passion is for or against Bernie, Hillary, Donald, or Obama, the voice of current public discourse is now trumpeted through untethered social media and partisan broadcast companies. And much of it borders on the angry, cruel and irrational,” says Glenn Sparks, professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication.

There has never been such a critical time when people need to cultivate their listening and empathy skills, says Sparks, who is an expert in mass media effects. He has studied how communication technologies affect interpersonal relationships.

“Technology has revolutionized how we keep in touch with those far away while giving others a glimpse into our personal lives they didn’t have before. It also has altered the kinds of relationships we have face-to-face,” Sparks says. “The constant time spent on phones and tablets has impeded our ability to have conversations and participate in daily discussions in general, so engaging in hot-button issues online can lead to a new level of hostility and disrespect.”

Sparks also cautions that online postings — by individuals, organizations or media outlets — are often intended to stoke incivility to generate more views and posts.

“People are losing the ability to have conversations in general, because part of having a conversation is listening, and we often forget that and it doesn’t always translate well to online forums.”

Thanks to technology, whether it be a dedicated TV news program or personally selected Twitter accounts, people can choose which limited information sources they learn from.

“This selective exposure leads people to avoid ideas, individuals, groups or even general information they find disagreeable,” Sparks says. “This dampens intellectual curiosity as well as tolerance to hear or respect the other side.”

Sparks is the co-author of "Refrigerator Rights: Our Crucial Need for Close Connection” with Will Miller, who is a lecturer in the Brian Lamb School of Communication.