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Is Technology Teaching Our Kids to Be Anti-Social?

Find out how to teach social and empathy skills in the age of technology.

Kelsey Herron | November 11, 2013

Comedian and father Louis C.K. doesn’t pull any punches when talking about his feelings about smartphones: “I think these things are toxic, especially for kids,”  he told Conan O’Brien recently as he mimed texting on an iPhone. “They [kids] don’t look at people when they talk to them, and they don’t build empathy.”

C.K. thinks smartphones are making it easier for kids to be mean to each other without having to face consequences. He used the example of one student calling another fat. In person, a kid can see how insulting their peer might cause hurt feelings. However, via text, the in-person exchange is completely lost, allowing a child to develop a kind of callousness that can accompany a lack of face-to-face communication.

Clinical psychologist and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self Sherry Turkle cited similar results in the field work for book Alone Together. One of her interviewees used the example of trying to cancel a dinner with grandma over the phone versus in a text or email. The subject explained that just hearing the disappointment in their grandmother’s voice on the phone was enough to alter their decision. By comparison, when simply typing an excuse and hitting the “send” button for a text or email, the sender doesn’t have to consider their grandmother’s feelings at all.

“I think we’re substituting connection for conversation,” said Turkle, speaking on NPR’s Fresh Air last year.  “We’re shortchanging ourselves.” Turkle says that while face-to-face connection becomes less important in the digital age, the skills people gain from conversation, like negotiation, reading emotions, and facing confrontation, are becoming less essential. On top of that, having constant access to technology inhibits the human need to accept and cope with being alone.

Yet, not everyone agrees with Turkle and her colleagues. When the book, Alone Together was first published, critics pointed out that while she might be right to feel uncomfortable with the “banalities of electronic interaction,” people aren’t likely to give up their digital connections because they enhance our lives, and even our relationships. 

Writing at the New York Times, Jonah Lehrer pointed to a 2007 study of Michigan State undergraduates that found that those who used Facebook did better on measures of “psychological well-being,” especially among kids who had low self-esteem. And, Lehrer says, there have been other studies to show blogging frequently can serve as a core to help people build intimate relationships.

“One recurring theme to emerge from much of this research is that most people, at least so far, are primarily using the online world to enhance their offline relationships, not supplant them,” Lehrer wrote. 

Social media scholar danah boyd would agree. boyd argues that kids aren’t any meaner today than they’ve always been. “Technology simply mirrors and magnifies all sorts of things we see in everyday life–and that’s good, bad and ugly,” she told Forbes. “Bullying’s not worse today. Technology just makes it more visible, leaving evidence.”

Regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, one thing is obvious: digital communication is here to stay, and will evolve as we do. So what can educators do to make sure students continue to build empathy skills in the midst of so much electronic interaction? How can educators facilitate healthy relationships among students, and between students and their devices?

Writing at the Fred Rogers Center blog, teachers from the Catherine Cook School in Chicago have some suggestions. They say that there are concrete things adults can do to help children learn from the social experiences they are having online and with smartphones.

“It is important that teachers invite conversation,” write Brian Puerling, Karen Jacobson, and Corrine Stutts. The authors say the ‘class meeting’ approach to democratic social problem solving that early childhood teachers often use can encourage students to voice their concerns or observations about events that take place either in or outside of the classroom. The authors also note that it allows students to take part in the solution process, and to come up with strategies together as a class. This can help children develop what the authors call an “emotional vocabulary.” This vocabulary can help students with situations that are happening online as well.

“During these meetings, children may need to see reenactments of events in order to truly experience empathy for others involved,” the authors write. To solve this issue, they recorded a reenactment of a real-life conflict that had arisen when a group of two students blocked their peers out of the house they’d all been building together online in the virtual game Minecraft afterschool. The video showed the perspectives of all parties involved to help students relate to each person’s situation. “In the video, students were able to practice problem solving and owning up -- skills that had been difficult for them to gain without the adult guidance.”

In addition to the words of advice from these educators, we have resources that can help as well. For example, Digital Passport provides educators with game units that teach 3rd to 5th graders about these issues. In the “Twalkers”game, students learn why it’s important to avoid multitasking with a cell phone and consider the benefits of focusing on one task at a time. Our parent version is downloadable for the iPhone/ iPad. Maybe Mr. C.K. wants to share it with his kids?