Before I had kids, I had no idea that one of the benefits I would be looking forward to for my three daughters and one son would be the opportunity to escape their electronic devices and engage in face-to-face conversation over an extended period of time.
The book Reclaiming Conversation by MIT’s Sherry Turkle, the leading sociologist studying humans’ relationship to technology, has given me much food for thought as we prepare for summer and look for ways to improve the learning benefits inherent in the Bold Earth experience. Here’s a quick summary.
As we all know, communication between teens these days is multi-modal: Conversation rarely happens without some combination of talking, texting, looking at photos, and bringing in non-physically-present friends through chat. This multitasking communication changes the dynamic of communication from what we as parents experienced growing up. While we can’t stop this change, we can reflect on what, if anything, is being lost.
Unlike multi-modal conversation, where we divide our attention, face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly and requires patience, tone, and nuance. True conversation is how we learn empathy, and the give and take and self-reflection of dialog determine what we actually think and believe. It’s more raw because conversation is instantaneous, and we are often asked to challenge our beliefs without having the time to research a point or polish our position. It allows us to be fully present and vulnerable, and experience the joy of being heard. It’s an opportunity to connect with others in a way you can’t when technology is present. Believe it or not, research shows that just the presence of a phone in the room, even if turned off, changes the dynamics of conversations, keeping them more superficial while avoiding topics of controversy or consequence.
Is it time to dismiss the belief driven by media and industry that the better connected we are, the better off we are? Technology’s perceived benefits are attractive, after all:
- We will always be heard (regardless of the importance of what we have to say).
- We can direct our attention to wherever we want it to be.
- We will never be alone—or bored.
- We will get a slight neurochemical high from connecting via technology as a result of receiving “likes,” “shares,” and new texts and emails.
But are these “benefits” actually good for our kids in the long run? Research shows that there has been a 40 percent reduction in markers for empathy in college students over the last 20 years, and most of this loss has developed over the past 10 years. This loss in empathy can be directly linked to habits resulting from the rise in digital communication. Beyond that, highly connected users of social media feel less accepted by peers, are not as good at identifying their own feelings (or the feelings of peers), and do not receive the same level of positive feelings after interacting with friends as do those who use social media less frequently. They also perform worse academically. Kids today report feeling more lonely than at any time in history, and incidence of teen mental health issues and suicides continue to rise. Technology can be a crutch that keeps kids from fully engaging in the real world, allowing them to engage only superficially, presenting a rehearsed rather than authentic self to the world.
I fear that our kids who have grown up surrounded by internet-connected technology don’t have the perspective to decide for themselves how to selectively let technology into their life. I fear that they won’t be able to realize the benefits of fully engaging with others through real, unfiltered conversation. And let’s admit it: Many of us adults have not been the best role models as we have tried to adapt to rapidly advancing technology (how often do we text, talk, or use Google when we are also engaging with our kids?). Two years ago we were talking through machines. Now we are talking directly to machines (i.e., Alexa or Siri). It’s time to set an example.
I believe a summer trip with Bold Earth can be an antidote. Research shows that it only takes four disconnected days outside for kids’ creativity to surge 40 percent. When we talk with kids at Bold Earth, we see that they crave the opportunity for intensive face-to-face interactions and actually enjoy the break from technology. Returning home after an extended tech-free experience gives them new perspective on how digital communication can fit into their world at home as a tool, rather than something they “need” in order to socialize.
I’ve often felt evening conversations are some of the best times at Bold Earth. There are no distractions (except impending sleep), and they have a chance to fully engage with friends in a way they don’t at a sleepover. When immersed in a new environment, often surrounded by beautiful scenery or a friendly homestay family, conversations come easy, barriers come down, and friends engage at a level they rarely do elsewhere. Our nightly evening meeting format is also a vehicle that enables group conversations that help us form close communities. There is nothing superficial about friendships formed at Bold Earth or the conversations we share. And without digital devices to divert our attention, there is time at Bold Earth to reflect, gather one’s thoughts, and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.
Can You Connect With Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality, by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein (2012)
Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis, by Sara Konrath, Edward O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing (2011)