Emotional Health · Family & Friends · Technology

Alone Together: Humans in the Digital World

But more is being lost than just conversation. Verbal interaction is at the foundation of intimacy. It is through the intimate interaction and wordplay between a mother and her infant that the early structure of a sense of self is built, and, even when silent, eye contact is crucial. Researchers, like Beatrice Beebe, building on the work of such pioneers as Margaret Mahler and Mary Ainsworth, have shown through the microanalysis of mother/ child face-to-face interactions the ways in which variations can have an effect on the security of a child’s attachment (The Origins of 12-Month Attachment: A Microanalysis of 4-Month Mother-Infant Interaction, Beebe, et. al. Attach Hum Dev. 2010 Jan; 12(0): 3–141.)  One of the findings of Beebe’s research is that the mother and child operate as a dyad and each affects the other. Avoidant mothers can produce avoidant children, but avoidant children influence their parents, too. Of course, her research is with infants, but it is not too hard to extrapolate and imagine the ways in which these circular mechanisms might work in interactions with older children, too.

Last week I was visiting my daughter’s family, who have a strict “no screens” policy for adults around their two young sons. Somehow, though, I forgot myself after a few days and one morning there I was feeding breakfast to her 13-month-old while reading The Times on the computer. My daughter came in and observed how sad it was to see that he was looking up at me from time to time and then looking away, disappointed. Without my daughter’s intervention, how long would it have been before he just gave up?

There’s no doubt in Turkle’s mind that we as parents must take the lead in reversing this trend in family life. “The most realistic way to disrupt this circle is to have parents step up to their responsibilities as mentors,” she writes. Called in as consultant to a middle school, she was confronted with a group of 12-year-olds whose level of empathy was more like grade schoolers. The faculty had noticed an increasing erosion over the past few years—children don’t seem to understand one another. Parents (and teachers, etc.) must set the example when it comes to having device-free mealtimes and other periods when family time is reserved for communication with one another. By talking with their parents and siblings, children learn how to express their feelings verbally, rather than just acting on them. They learn the soothing power of having others listen and respond empathically, and develop the skill to do that in kind. They learn how to communicate their ideas effectively and be a responsive conversationalist. They absorb the values of their parents and learn stories about their past. Turkle’s books, well-written, deeply researched and above all humanistic, advocate for the thoughtful questioning of the impact of all our new powers of communication on our ability to understand one another.


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  • Brenda December 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    After reading this and agreeing completely, my first inclination was to put it on my Facebook and on Pinterest!
    And I’m a 72 year old grandmother!