Parents need to designate technology-free ‘sacred spaces’ so families can relearn the art of conversation, says Marjorie Brennan.
I WAS recently in a café when a man sat near me with a little boy, who looked around 18 months old. As soon as the child was put in a high chair, a tablet device was propped up in front of him, while the man took out his phone. In the course of about 45 minutes, there was no interaction between them — the child watched cartoons while his father scrolled on his phone.
This scene is not unusual, it is one now replicated in cafés and restaurants throughout the country. To say that it is neglectful risks the wrath of parents in thrall to technology and the respite it offers from the often tedious and demanding job of childrearing.
But, according to Sherry Turkle, we must examine such behaviour and assess the often negative consequences. In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, the professor at MIT argues that we have sacrificed face-to-face exchanges for interactions with our smartphones and tablets, that conversation is under assault and without it, we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and less fulfilled.
“Why don’t we think this behaviour is strange? We’ve got to get back to where we think this behaviour is strange — and sad. Children need eye-to-eye contact, particularly in those crucial cognitive years,” she says. This was observed to heartbreaking effect in children kept in Romanian orphanages under Ceausescu, who suffered severe developmental damage because of neglect and lack of interaction.
“Technology makes us forget — part of us knows that we need to be connected with our children, to be talking to them, but technology is coming in like a blocking agent at the most important moment of connection [infancy]. We are denying them something truly crucial.”
According to Turkle, this “bread and butter” of relationship-building lays down the capacity for empathy and the lack of it will affect our children as they get older, as empathy is linked to long-term happiness and success in the workplace.
“We have no choice, we have to break this habit because there is a 40% decline in the capacity for empathy among college students [in the US]. By the time they get to college they’re having trouble with the most basic ability to put themselves in the place of another. They’re on their phones, not talking to each other. I see it in families — parents texting at breakfast instead of talking to their kids.”
Turkle, who has spent the last 30 years studying the psychology of our relationship with technology, and has written several acclaimed books on the subject, describes her latest work as a “call to arms”. However, she is at pains to point out that she is not some “cranky technophobe”.
“I love technology. This book is not anti-technology, it is pro-conversation. It depends on what that technology is. I’m not for technology that stands between the conversations between parents and children.”
Turkle also addresses the effect of constant technological connection in the workplace and says that many employers are seeing the negative effect that lack of face-to-face communication is having. Turkle spoke to employers who said graduates were coming to work with unexpected phobias and anxieties.
“They don’t know how to begin and end conversations. They have a hard time with eye contact. They say that talking on the telephone makes them anxious,” says Turkle. “We need to talk to our colleagues in order to engage with them, to engage in our jobs, but technology allows us to mail the person right next to us. This is not smart, and we know it isn’t smart, so we’re ready to revisit this.”
Turkle also discovered in her extensive interviews with students that contrary to the narrative that young people are “digital natives” and therefore at ease with technology and constant digital connection, many of them are seeking out the ‘old’ ways of interaction.
“My research shows that the people most anxious to get back to talking and face-to-face communication are young people, whose parents paid no attention to them because they were on their phones, or cut short vacations because the wifi connection wasn’t good enough.”
One student, referring to the move towards more online learning, said he preferred to go to lectures because he needed company.
“Here was this student who was basically saying, ‘I really like to go to class because I get lonely, I want to go to class to be with other people’ — and he was so ashamed. It was terribly sad.”
What about the argument that Turkle is perhaps out of touch and that our move towards digital connection is just part of evolution?
“What’s going on now is not part of the natural human evolution,” says Turkle. “We have not developed the social mores to deal with this. When books came in they interfered with certain types of conversation, which is true, but you could say that was part of the evolution away from the old oral tradition. If you and I were together over lunch I would never say to you, ‘just excuse me for two minutes, I want to get in three paragraphs of reading’. I couldn’t put you on pause, read that and then come back to you to say, ‘thanks for going on pause, now we can go back to our conversation’.
“What we’re doing with our phones now, we’re texting people, updating Facebook, we’re putting people on pause. That’s not evolution. That’s people in an inappropriate social relationship to you.”
Turkle quotes a 2012 study which revealed that nine in 10 college students admit to texting in class (including “phubbing”, the term used for texting without having to look at your phone).
This society where we would “rather text than talk” is also taking a toll on romantic relationships, says Turkle. One 18-year-old tells her that in online flirting, ‘the hardest thing’ is when the person you text doesn’t respond. Rejection on social media is “five times as great” as regular rejection.
Social media now provides so much data on, and access to, potential romantic partners, it makes it hard to commit to any one person. With relationships relying heavily on text communication, says Turkle, the nuances of facial expression and body language are lacking, often leading to arguments and misunderstandings.
However, she is optimistic about the future, and believes if we take certain steps now, we will find our way back to conversation.
“I think people are listening. It’s hard, because it means changing your ways, but people are starting to examine their behaviour. And I think people are ready, they’ve sensed they’ve overstepped.
“There’s a very interesting statistic [from a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center in the US]: 89% of mobile phone owners said they had used their phones during the last social gathering they attended; 82% said the conversation deteriorated as a result. That’s extraordinary, that we know we’re doing something that’s not good for us, but we’re doing it anyway.”
Turkle believes parents should designate “sacred spaces” free of distracting technology for family conversations, such as the dinner table and the car. She also cites a 2014 study of children attending a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, they were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group.
“What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another,” she says.
“I feel hopeful, because there’s a young generation which wants something new. Younger people have this experience of begging their parents for more, and that’s powerful. However, I think they also need the older generation to collaborate with them and to help them to come to a different way of being with technology.
“We need a different kind of digital diet. More and more I’m seeing people who are coming to this conclusion, that we’re missing things that are essential to us if we don’t get back to each other. I believe we are ready for the change.”
- Parents are often distracted by their own devices instead of engaging their children in conversation at the dinner table or during family trips. Establish ‘sacred spaces’ where phones and devices are not allowed. Introduce this idea to children when they are young so that it doesn’t appear punitive, just a baseline of family culture.
- You don’t need to give up your phone, just use it more deliberately, and know when to take a break. Time without your phone is restorative.
- Don’t let your inbox set your agenda. If you receive an inconvenient email request from someone, respond by saying you need time and will get back to them. Emails and texts make quick responses possible — they don’t make them wise.
- Adults need play as much as children do. Take time away from screens to think, talk, and create.
- Make an evening or a weekend off the net a regular part of your routine.
- Be realistic. If you can’t spend two hours with your children in the park without your phone, adjust your plan. Take them to the park for one hour and give them your full attention.
- Embrace boredom — take time to daydream when queuing or waiting, instead of checking your phone.
- It’s good to talk — don’t make texts and email your default for communication.
- Try to refrain from texting or looking at your phone when playing with your child, reading them a bedtime story or going for a walk.
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