5 Skills -- from Empathy to Manners -- That Tech Might Be Eroding (and What to Do About It)

If you're drowning in devices, but politeness is in short supply, it's time to get back to basics. By Sierra Filucci
5 Skills -- from Empathy to Manners -- That Tech Might Be Eroding (and What to Do About It)

You started with the best intentions. Your kid needed a laptop for homework. Your tween needed a phone to text you after school. You wanted a Fitbit to lose a few extra pounds. But now, you look around and devices are plugged into every nook and cranny in your home. Everyone's staring, tapping, tracking. While you're grateful for things like Google Maps and Netflix that make your life easier and more fun, something feels off.

It's the basics that are missing: courtesy, conversation, being bored, and appreciating simple pleasures.

But all hope is not lost. You may have to take another look at how your family is using tech and make adjustments based on your values. But you can do it. Here are five ways tech has nibbled away at valuable life skills and experiences, and what you can do about it.

Home Assistants vs. Manners

If you are one of the millions of households in the United States with Alexa or Google Home, you may have noticed an unfortunate side effect of using the device: a lack of enforced courtesy. Kids (and adults) shout commands at the device: "Play Beyoncé!" or "What’s the weather?!” The devices do not require a "please" or "thank you," and the more lifelike these devices become, the weirder it is to hear your child rudely demanding something from a humanlike voice.

What to do: Model the behavior you want to see. It might feel strange to say "please" to a machine, but if that's what you expect from your kid, you should do it too. It might help explain to kids that even though you know Alexa doesn't have feelings, using polite voices and words makes it nicer for the real people in the house who do have feelings. You can talk about how it can feel bad to be around someone who's yelling or angry, even if they're not yelling at you.

Phones vs. Respect for Elders

How many of us have witnessed a teacher, coach, or grandparent try to make conversation with kids who can't unglue their eyes from a screen? Of course it's only polite to put down your phone when anyone is talking to you, but it can be especially embarrassing for parents who were raised to defer to the older generation.

What to do: Make your expectations very clear. Talk to your kids about how important it is to use good manners when you’re on your phone. Explain that it can be very difficult to put down your phone when you're in the middle of a game or chat, but you believe it's important to pay special respect to people like grandparents and elders. And of course, respect breeds respect, so put your phone down when your kid talks to you (unless it's about how much redstone they need to build a castle in Minecraft, in which case it's totally OK to ignore them!).

Internet vs. Value of Boredom

When a phone full of cute cat videos and funny memes is only a swipe away, it's easy to forget what it was like to be truly bored. But science tells us that boredom is actually useful -- for kids and adults. Not only can boredom lead to deep thinking, it can help kids practice perseverance, or pushing through uncomfortable moments without stimulation or distraction. And without boredom, kids might not take the time to explore their surroundings -- dig in the dirt, wonder how a house is built, bake cookies without a recipe -- and they might not stumble on something they really love to do.

What to do: Create opportunities for boredom by setting up times and places where devices are off-limits. And make sure kids have unstructured time -- even a little bit -- where they can roam the house or the neighborhood without a schedule. Keep a list of activities that kids say they like to do -- from drawing to hammering to bouncing a ball -- and point them toward it when they complain.

Activity Trackers vs. Activity for Its Own Sake

If you've ever taken a walk with someone who's trying to get steps, it can be hard to concentrate on the conversation while they're jogging in place, hopping up and down, and constantly checking their device. Activity trackers -- while useful for many -- tend to distract from the activity itself. And if we want kids to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings, the comfort of a meandering conversation, or even the rush of endorphins that can come with a strenuous walk, we need to emphasize the benefits of the activity, rather than the quantification of the actions.

What to do: First, don’t buy your kid an activity tracker unless they need it for a specific reason. Second, engage in lots of outdoor activity and fun exercise, and comment on how good it feels. And last, model the behavior and values you want to see in your kid -- even if you're tracking your steps, wait until the walk is over to check your progress, for example.

Devices vs. Empathy

The mere presence of a phone on the table between two people having a discussion has been shown to decrease feelings of empathy. Whether this is because the phone owner is distracted by the possibility of an incoming message or the promise of something more interesting on the device is unclear. But it makes sense that if someone isn't giving you their full attention, they're less likely to understand or empathize with you, and ultimately that can affect the quality of the relationship.

What to do: Prioritize face-to-face conversation over devices by putting phones and tablets out of site during meals. Recognize your thought pattern during conversations, and if you find yourself wondering about a missed call or guessing how many people liked your most recent Instagram post, refocus your concentration on your friend, spouse, or kid. And acknowledge how difficult digital distraction can be to manage yourself so that your kids understand that you think it's an important challenge to wrestle with.

About Sierra Filucci

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Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more... Read more

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Comments (9)

Adult written by Anthony D.

I was raised by a single mom, at fourteen years old I was smoking marijuana with a twelve year old who had unlimited supplies from his older brother who was facilitated by a sister who was an Airline Stewardess. I survived those early years with the strong handling of a strong willed woman called Mom. Now grown-up and raised two sons in NY both professionals, one a Basketball Coach. I felt the need to help other parents dealing with problem teenagers and exposing my wretched youth to other teenagers as to how not to live their lives. wondering how can I save just one young life or help one parent to overcome the turbulent sea of parenting, I developed my own website, focusing on parenting, teenagers at the crossroads and safe Driving, something all teenagers should know before getting behind the wheel. savingkidssouls.com is my way of showing gratitude to a great Mother. Ps. great Mothers are a gift from God.
Adult written by L B

The comment about ignoring the Mindcraft-obsessed child was appropriately humorous...to anyone who has been brain-numbed by constant Mindcraft chatter. A little selective listening is appropriate at times as long as it's balanced with attentive give-and-take conversation. Sierra, I completely got the humor -- keep it!
Kid, 12 years old

This article is totally what families need these days. To me nobody ever uses their imagination anymore and it's all glued to screens. So...this article was a nice reminder to everyone that there are other things to do then electronics all day. Another way to unplug is for your child to join clubs, go to the park or interact with sports more often. But all in all great article for this world right now!
Adult written by Len M.

You do realize that "Please" and "Thank You" aren't necessarily required. Arguably, these kinds of words might prissy up a sentence to sound more "friendly" but being direct does not inherently mean the person is rude or mean. Tone of voice, body language, and eye contact go along much further than a fake please and thank you. "'Play Beyoncé!' or 'What’s the weather?!' The devices do not require a 'please' or 'thank you'"
Parent written by Jodie C.

I think the point of the sentence was precisely that the devices don't require a please or thank you so have the potential to create a habit of forgetting to use them. Also, I would challenge you to consider that the more 'direct' a person you are, the more important courtesies like 'please' and 'thank you' become. I meet far, far too many children these days who bark out orders to their parents, to servers in restaurants, to their teachers, even. Manners are not for 'prissy(ing) up a sentence' - they are about treating others with respect.
Adult written by Kathy C.

Another suggestion is to get your kids involved in something that does not use technology. A sport, a play or musical, an instrument or singing lessons, gymnastics or dance, martial arts etc. There are plenty of activities students can do with others that get them away from technology and keep them active and using their minds and bodies. The group activities can also help to build empathy and communication skills.
Adult written by Lori G.

Technology is used too often. Its seems to be used in place of thinking for yourself. We have eroded the ability to simply sit and have our own thoughts (we must be entertained at all times) stop texting, tweeting, and snap chatting your every moment. You don't need a car to drive for you- simply learn how to drive. Kids need to have chores -not for allowance, but because they are part of the family. Parents are not choosing their battles, they are actually choosing when to parent which is pathetic. Parenting is 24/7, you are in charge not the kids. They are NOT little adults.
Parent written by Ellie Z.

I really have enjoyed articles from this group, www.commonnsemedia.org, and even was into reading this piece until the following parenthetical comment from the author: "And of course, respect breeds respect, so put your phone down when your kid talks to you (unless it's about how much redstone they need to build a castle in Minecraft, in which case it's totally OK to ignore them!). She just shot her article in the proverbial foot. If your child wants to talk to you, to involve you in one of his/her interests, to take time to share a concern, count yourself lucky and be thankful. Don't belittle the child's concern or interest because it is just a silly task in a silly game! What are you modeling then?!? Oh yeah, lack of respect, your stuff doesn't matter, you don't matter... So take another look at that article, Sierra Filucci, and use your common sense. It is never OK to totally ignore your child when they want to share with you.
Parent written by Jodie C.

I think she was kidding. The fact that she knows what redstone is reveals the fact that she knows something about her child's interest.