Should We Go on a Digital Diet?

Family Matters on 04.06.11
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What is it that compels us to "nurture what we love, but also love what we nurture"? That last bit is a quote from Sherry Turkle. She's a cognitive psychologist who studied how humans interact with robots. She recently wrote "Alone Together," a book exploring our love affair with technology and how it's shaping the way we interact with our kids and the way our kids interact with us.

It's a timely book. Consider how much we're attached to our cell phones, for instance. How many of you have dropped your land line, have a smart phone and spend more than 30 minutes gabbing on one, always have your phone at the ready, not to mention using it to organize your life? Let's face it: A good cell phone is a busy parent's best friend.

In "Alone Together," Turkle talks about her experiences in the lab at MIT, more specifically her, at first, inexplicable attachment to a rudimentary-looking robot named Cog. She found herself yearning for Cog to acknowledge her with a head turn when she spoke. Odd, right? After all, why would we think that a machine could have feelings for us? Turns out projection is everything. This could explain why so many of us have turned to the Internet to forge our identities and sate our appetites for connection (at a distance, that is).  

When the Gate Keeper Becomes the Gate-Crasher

At first Turkle was a proponent of limitless social technology, but she now looks at the last 40 years of her studies and weaves a cautionary tale  from her field research that involved years and years of interviews with children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly and how they engaged with technology.  

According to the Chronicle of Higher Learning, "Again and again she [Turkle] saw how even the relatively clumsy robot dog or electronic baby doll could spark a deep emotional response." One such robot was Kismit who interacted with little kids. Although the kids were told that Kismit was a robot and wasn't alive, most of the kids went away from the interaction thinking they had developed a friendship with it.

The problem is underscored in an example of when Kismit malfunctions. "A 12-year-old subject named Estelle became convinced that the robot had clammed up because it didn't like her, and she became sullen and withdrew to load up on snacks provided by the researchers."

That's a kid and technology. So what does it mean for our kids when they see us interacting at such intense levels with technology (whether it's our iPads, iPhones, TV or laptop) when we're supposed to be the gatekeepers? I can tell you that I've slipped in a few minutes on the phone or computer throughout the day to make arrangements for work or to finish up research or review something I've recently written. Seems innocent enough while my daughter plays.

The Insidious Creep of Technology

But am I indirectly telling her it's OK to shut everyone out and immerse yourself in an avatar-like world where nothing is "real" in the sense that games, videos and nearly almost everything else we plug into on the Internet is a construct? Does she get the sense that my immersing, unpredictable bouts of turning away from her are more important than she is?

I've rationalized my technology-using behavior by telling myself that I won't check my e-mail again for an hour, or that I've put away the device and now my 2 year old has my full attention. Pfft - the truth is that my mind is still busy twirling around the next e-mail I'll be composing...

Turkle might argue that it's insidious, the way we allow technology to intrude upon us at every moment. She recommends that we put aside time each day, telling our children, "It's time for mommy to work," rather than taking calls, texting and the various other ways we continuously chip away at the little time we have with our kids. She thinks that if you take a block of time and say you're working, your kid will get it. But if you shift your attention away from children at regular intervals throughout the day, they might retreat to technology for solace instead. And how might that play itself out psychology 10 years from now?  

Recently Turkle gave a talk at the Georgia Institute of Technology. An audience member wondered if Turkle was suggesting we go on a digital diet. Not such a bad idea. We could all stand to back away from the addictive de(vices) in our life enough so that we make eye contact with the ones we love. Otherwise we run the risk of our children growing up, as Turkle might say, alone together.

More on Kids and Technology

TLC : 10 Technologies That Bring the Family Closer
TLC : How to Balance Work and Home Life

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