In his book The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr warns of the dangers of modern day “cybernetic blurring of mind and machine,” which “may allow us to carry out certain cognitive tasks far more efficiently,” but also “poses a threat to our integrity as human beings.” In expanding on these thoughts, he quotes the late Marshall McLuhan, philosopher of communication theory:

Alienation… is an inevitable by-product of the use of technology. Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world. Control can be wielded only from a psychological distance… [and] an honest appraisal of any technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.

Cybernetic blurring?  Inner watchdog? What are Carr and McLuhan talking about? 
It’s a good question. We’d venture that they are hitting upon a phenomenon that is becoming distressingly familiar to cultural anthropologists and social scientists alike: the unconscious trade-off we make every day in our virtual interaction between connection and communication, understanding and utility, empathy and efficiency. Our kids are likely to follow suit.

In the Digital Age, we have become used to these trade-offs. We have begun to do strange things, things that now seem more and more normal, acting in ways that we may not be entirely comfortable with. We are unintentionally teaching our kids by example.

Throughout her writing and lectures, virtual communication researcher Sherry Turkle shares unsettling stories of “connecting” in the Digital Age – chilling anecdotes from her own life and from the lives of others that illustrate the dangers of taking the norms of today’s high-tech society for granted – snapshots of moments that expose the alienation created by blind acceptance of these norms. 

She writes about a lawyer working in California, far from his family in New York, who finds out about his sister’s engagement through a mass email to her friends and family. She shares his anger and hurt, surprise and disappointment that his sister didn’t call, that she didn’t find a private moment to tell him in person. Turkle writes about a young woman who struggles to defend herself in continuing to spend her weekly Skype dates with Grandma multi-tasking, surreptitiously catching up on her email. Turkle describes her guilt and self-justification. She shares the accounts of countless others who have been shocked, wounded, and confused by careless use of social media, who exemplify the emotional strife incurred by often un-malicious miscalculations in a world of disconnection – of increasingly warped and devolving social expectations that encourage behavior directly destructive to our most cherished relationships!

“Today,” she says, “Our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face-to-face with a person.”

Turkle’s decades of research on social dynamics can be summarized briefly in the uncomfortable paradox: 

“Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone.”

Sound familiar? It does to us. When it comes to parenting, lowered expectations and increased distances are toxic. What can we do? As parents, have power. With great power comes great responsibility! We can think about our own behavior and become more self aware, especially around our kids. 

We can remember that they look to us for guidance. We can control our use of media.We can put down our cell phones and computers and stop checking text messages in emotionally charged situations – and in the everyday time we set aside to spend with our children. 

We can show our kids that we enjoy activities other than staying on the computer and responding to emails – by spending time with them and doing something fun: reading, playing outside, working on hobbies, painting a picture. As they grow, our kids need our patience and attention, not only when emotions run high. Positive intentions don’t cut it. 

In the introduction to his celebrated book Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman underscores the importance of this:

Most parents… want to treat their kids fairly, with patience and respect. They know the world presents children with many challenges, and they want to be there for their kids, lending insight and support. They want to teach their kids to handle problems effectively and to form strong, healthy relationships. But there’s a big difference between wanting to do right by your kids and actually having the wherewithal to carry it off.

PS: Don’t miss special holiday discounts from The Gottman Store! Select paperback books are only $10 until Sunday. Check out the Gottman Gift Guide for more information.

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.