In her latest book, author, technology critic, and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle tears our preferred modes of communication a new one. The central argument of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In A Digital Age is that the easy, streamlined, emotionally risk-free technologies that entertain and keep people “in touch” without human interaction have diminished our capacity for empathy and self-reflection. Turkle is not just your grouchy friend from high school who won’t use Facebook because she’s “old school,” either. Her thesis is thoroughly researched and supported by legit academic studies suggesting not only that our smart phones are turning us into assholes; they are also making us less happy.
Turkle looks at how the unintended consequences of constant connectivity with little human connection have sullied our interactions in the areas of work, school, and our communities; and have removed opportunities for therapeutic solitude. But no aspect of the emotional distance and dissatisfaction wrought by the lure of social media and digital communication is as bleak as Turkle’s assessment of how our lack of conversation has impacted family life. To add insult to injury, she doesn’t even blame the Kids These Days. She blames the parents. Fortunately, she has a couple of very simple solutions for how to break the cycle. (They just happen to be gut-wrenchingly difficult to implement.)
How Technology Is Screwing Up Our Kids
Computers simulate human interaction; but they can’t replace it. The predictability and “friction-free” nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.
- “Children need to learn what complex human feelings and human ambivalence look like,” Turkle writes. “And they need other people to respond to their own expressions of that complexity. These are the most precious things that people give to children in conversation as they grow up.”
- Children need to learn, through conversations with their parents, the difference between a problem and a catastrophe. Parental attention to the small ups and downs of childhood “helps children learn what is and is not an emergency and what children can handle on their own,” Turkle writes. “Parental inattention can mean that, to a child, everything feels urgent.”
- In interview after interview, Turkle found that kids longed for more conversations with not only their parents, but also their peers. Their parents and peers were distracted by electronic devices, so these disappointed kids turned to their own screens for stimulation.
What You Can Do With This
- Take the “Talking Cure.” Talk to your kids, even if they are pre-verbal. From Turkle’s book: “…instead of doing your email as you push your daughter in her stroller, talk to her. Instead of putting a digital tablet in your son’s baby bouncer, read to him and chat about the book.”
- As your kids get older, make family conversations a regular part of every day. If you think back, this is probably what you originally envisioned when you bought that dinner table.
Boredom Is A Crucial Ingredient of Childhood
With all the connected devices available to our kids (and ourselves), there is no reason to experience “downtime.” We whip out our phones during any lull in activity, and therefore teach our kids to do the same. But we are robbing them of opportunities for flights of imagination and development of their sense of self.
- Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson posits that “children thrive when they are given time and stillness.” The “shiny objects,” as Turkle calls technological distractors, interrupt that stillness.
- “When children grow up with time alone with their thoughts, they feel a certain ground under their feet,” Turkle writes. “Their imaginations bring them comfort. If children always have something outside of themselves to respond to, they don’t build up this resource.” What they build up instead? Anxiety. Lot and lots of anxiety.
- According to neuroscience research, “it is only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” In other words, we figure out who we are. Turkle compares this process to its digital equivalent: creating online profiles that make us look cool and successful.
What You Can Do With This
- Instead of screen-based play, get your kid involved with manipulating physical objects. “Whereas screen activity tends to rev kids up, the concrete worlds of modeling clay, finger paints, and building blocks slow them down,” Turkle writes. “The physicality of these materials … offers a very real resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds.”
- Establish a screen time policy for your kids and stick to it. While you’re at it, establish one for yourself. Consider sending your kid to a device-free summer camp.
- Go outside.
Whereas most screeds against the scourge of digital technology focus on “those damn kids,” Turkle puts the onus squarely on the parents. In citations from research, anecdotes, and interviews, she paints modern parents as helpless against the siren song of social media notifications, work emails, and at GIFs, all to the detriment of our kids.
- According to Turkle, “several ‘generations” of children have grown up expecting parents and caretakers to be only half there. Many parents text at breakfast and dinner, and parents and babysitters ignore children when they take them to playgrounds and parks.”
- Ignoring kids in favor of devices fails to model empathy and they’re less likely to learn the skills of creating and maintaining relationships, which are learned through physical interactions with each other.
What You Can Do With This
- Create a “sacred space” — a device-free zone in your home where conversation or solitude will not be interrupted. You might want to keep the cookies and beer in this area lest no one ever visit there.
- Be the grownup and put your damn phone away.