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.
Carr and McLuhan are hitting upon a phenomenon: the unconscious trade-off made every day in the virtual interaction between connection and communication, understanding and utility, empathy and efficiency. Children are likely to follow suit.
Trade-offs are common in the Digital Age. What used to be strange is now normal, and for children, it can simply become a way of life.
Throughout her writing and lectures, virtual communication researcher Sherry Turkle shares unsettling stories of “connecting” in the Digital Age. They are 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. He is angry, hurt, and surprised that his sister didn’t call 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 the careless use of social media.
“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.”
When it comes to parenting, lowered expectations and increased distances are toxic. However, parents can reconsider their behavior and become more self-aware, especially around their kids.
Children look to their parents for guidance, and when they see adults putting aside electronics in emotionally charged situations, they understand the importance of in-person communication.
Enjoy activities other than staying on the computer. Spend time with them and doing something fun such as reading, playing outside, or painting a picture.
“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.”
Read more articles from The Digital Age series.