The father of a twelve-year-old girl expressed puzzlement about his daughter always wanting to do things with a friend. It seemed to him that when she is with a friend they are each individually engaged with a phone, iPod, or iPad, rather than actually doing something together. This fits the behavior Sherry Turkle describes in her book, “Alone Together.”
The mother of a girl the same age talked about her daughter dreaming about receiving an iPhone as a birthday gift. The mother is very much opposed but has decided to get this for the girl because of the mom’s own need rather than her daughter’s wish. The mother’s work schedule means she is not always home when her daughter gets home from school and there is no way for them to be in touch with each other. The phone will give the mother some peace of mind.
Another mother was concerned about her ten-year-old daughter’s dependency. She becomes anxious when she feels unable to be in touch with mom. When the parents are out together the girl calls them constantly to reassure herself even though she is not home alone. The mother has set limits on how many times she can be called and has threatened to turn off her phone as a means of enforcement.
A great deal is written these days about the negative impact of technology on human relationships, relationships between friends, parents and children, and even romantic relationships. The continuing dependency of young adults on their parents and a decreased capacity for independent functioning has been noted. Social media have been held responsible for young people’s investment in creating artificial selves with a corresponding loss of true self identity.
Last year’s film, “Her,” depicts a young man turning to a romantic partner created by artificial intelligence for emotional support, a relationship that does not require meeting the needs of a real person. The emotional component of all relationships, including those between parents and children has been undermined further by the prevalence of texting. Texting has replaced telephone conversations, and is even more impersonal. No tone of voice is available to help judge a child’s well-being or the possibility of blurting out something more revealing.
What all of this points to is the increasing absence of real contact between people. In her more recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Turkle discusses a serious loss of humanistic qualities attributed to electronic communication. Specifically, research has shown a sharp decline in empathy among college students of the smartphone generation. Turkle’s point is that because young people aren’t learning how to be alone, they are losing their capacity to empathize.
Observing interactions between young children it is clear that the capacity for empathy is innate. Two and three year olds reach out to comfort someone in distress. In a group, many become upset if a child cries. Children are experiencing the reality of other people, the ability to recognize and identify with the feelings of another. They also experience conflicts with others and can begin to develop ways of dealing with such conflicts. In other words, they are beginning to experience both the rewards and difficulties of human life.
When you speak to people in person you are forced to recognize and deal with the reality of others. That is often challenging but it is how empathy develops. Turkle points out that it is through the conversational attention of parents that children acquire a sense of connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them.
The message we can take from this as parents is that in providing our children with the alluring tools of technology, we ourselves must be models in their use. It is in our relationships with our children that we further their capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy.