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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.