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The Delicate Balance of Raising a Child in the Digital and Real World

When I was a young kid, a car that had a CD player in it was considered cutting-edge. At 16, I remember sitting shotgun while my friend drove by our high school while holding the receiver to a bag phone – a big, heavy cellular phone with a cord housed in a fake leather bag – to his ear. We got a lot of looks, which is exactly what we wanted.

The pace of technological advancement in automobiles has continued to accelerate. I consider myself a reasonably competent consumer of technology, but can barely keep up with all of the new features in cars. The truth is I don’t even try – the technology is overwhelming the car. I recently drove a couple hundred miles with friend of mine in my new car and he spent most of the trip chuckling and shaking his head at me as I fumbled with the controls. Give me an easy way to control the heat, A/C, cruise control and program five presets on the radio (it’s still a radio, right?), and I’m good.

Last week Uber announced that it is bringing a fleet of self-driving cars to Pittsburgh to test a new program with the goal, ultimately, of replacing its one million human drivers with robot ones – controlled from afar. It’s reasonable to believe that in another ten years – perhaps far less – that driving, itself, will be obsolete. All cars on the road will be driverless. Heck, in twenty years cars themselves may be a thing of the past, replaced by some new means of transportation, powered by a combination of artificial intelligence and a power source we haven’t even envisioned yet. We may look back at today’s behemoth auto manufacturers in much the same way we now view last century’s buggy whip makers.

Who knows? And there’s little point in losing sleep over it, right? For most of us the march of technology continues relentlessly and unimpeded, whether we like it or not. And I’m in the camp that believes that, for the most part, the rapid advances in technology we are experiencing are having a hugely positive impact – from health to economic well-being, productivity to leisure – on society, here in the U.S. and around the world.

But there’s no doubt that things are being lost in the process. I wonder whether my six year old daughter will experience one of the most exciting rites of passage for teenagers of the last several generations – earning a driver’s permit. What will be the point if a computer can drive more safely and never make a wrong turn? And why would a teen want to drive when she can instead spend her time comfortably being entertained by technology?

And this issue goes far beyond cars and driving. For example, will foreign languages still be taught in school in ten years? Again, why bother when technology will almost certainly enable two people to converse seamlessly despite any language barriers?

Will young kids today ever take a date to a movie theater and share a large popcorn when on-demand, handheld entertainment is sure to become even more pervasive? Will they ever ride a roller coaster at an amusement park when virtual reality will be able to replicate the experience without the long lines and hot sun?

While these are all interesting questions, they point to a larger, more important issue. Advances in technology have always altered experiences, displaced companies, and required new approaches to education.

But I fear that what we are losing, more than anything, from incessant digital communication is our ability to connect and interact with other people – in the real world – in a meaningful way.

What’s Gained by Technology is Often Lost in Human Relationships

This fear is particularly acute when it comes to today’s school-aged children. Those of us in our 30’s and 40’s grew up in an interesting time. We came of age as the Internet, email and cell phones became pervasive, but we also have one foot in the past – that is, we remember having to pick up a phone hung on a wall in our parents’ kitchen and dealing with eavesdropping siblings and busy signals when trying to make a call.

This is not a new idea or concern of course. Many have been ringing the bell on the issue of the downsides of digital communication for years, but whether by coincidence or because it’s becoming more prevalent, it’s something that’s been at the forefront of my consciousness lately.

I’ve recently heard a number of our friends with older children lament modern day “courtship.” Kids don’t date anymore. They don’t even talk. They text or “Chat” on Snapchat. Comedian Aziz Ansari deals with these issues hilariously and insightfully in his book, Modern Romance: An Investigation, and during his standup routine. Here’s his take on texting. How in the world are young people who communicate primarily via text with a significant other (term used loosely) going to have a mature relationship – let alone a marriage – when they have no idea how to converse with one another? Things have gotten so bad that colleges have begun offering courses teaching students how to ask someone out on a date.

As part of the research I’m doing for a book, I’ve spoken to a number of senior, successful attorneys recently about the habits, practices and traits that high-performing young attorneys have in common and, conversely, the habits, practices and traits of young lawyers who struggle. The most common complaint about young lawyers? They will almost always opt for email or text rather than standing up from their desks, walking down the hall, and popping in someone’s office to talk. Because of this they miss some of the most valuable learning experiences in a law firm environment, which involve observing how senior colleagues acquit themselves, how they deal with clients on the phone, and how they interact with other staff. By missing these interactions, young lawyers fail to develop the verbal skills, judgment and emotional intelligence they need to succeed. I’m sure this same problem is pervasive across industries and professions.

As With Most Things, It’s All About Moderation

This isn’t meant to be a grumpy “When I was a kid…” screed against technology and a romanticization of the “good old days.” I’m a big believer in the benefits of technology but, especially as it relates to our kids, there need to be limits. This is especially true when it comes to situations where technology gets in the way of, rather than enhances, communication. Sure, Skype or FaceTime is a great way to communicate with your family if you’re traveling in Europe, but do you need to text your mom if she’s down the hall in the kitchen?

The need to monitor and restrain kids will be even more true as virtual reality technology advances and becomes more pervasive, making it easier than ever for kids to have a wide range of experiences and interactions, but of the digital variety.

So what is a parent to do? In many ways I’m the wrong person to address this question because I sometimes have trouble putting limits on my own technology use. On this issue, therefore, I try to follow Heather’s lead. She places great value on one-to-one interaction, and tries to teach that lesson to our kids. For example, we try to have as much family time together and as many meals as possible during which everyone is disconnected.

At the same time, we understand that technology is here to stay, and so we try to moderate, and not eliminate, our kids’ digital usage. That said, we place a huge priority on experiential learning over online learning.

Unless the world changes even more than we think, being exposed to a broad range of people, places, and situations while young will still be a valuable asset for someone preparing for the challenges of adulthood.

It’s our job to make sure that we’ve done our best to raise children who become well-adjusted, mature, contributing members of society as adults. There are ways that technology makes our job easier, but in many other ways it makes it harder. One way that it has made it harder is that, as a result of “digital shortcut” communication, many young people are unable to have coherent conversations and interactions with other people. They can’t read emotions. They lack the ability to understand nuance.

Sherry Turkle is an MIT Professor who has spent her career researching technology usage. In a New York Times column, she wrote, “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits … we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions. We dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.”

It’s ironic that at a time of rapid advancement in technology, those who succeed in the future will be more dependent than ever on EQ, or emotional intelligence, over IQ. It will be the children of today who master the ancient art of conversation, and understand the subtleties of human emotion, who will be able to navigate back and forth between the digital and real world and, ultimately, flourish in both.