In a world where face-to-face interaction is being replaced by computer connections, how will our children connect emotionally with one another? Will there even be a need? What can we do as parents to ensure that our children don’t lose sight of the importance of human relationships?
There is no question that even in the last 10 years we have become a more “connected” world. We are connected to and by the exchange of information and data. This ability to exchange information at warp speed has created a situation where cultures evolve just as rapidly. All of this sounds like a good thing, but it makes our children’s future that much more uncertain, because things really do seem to change in the blink of an eye. Here’s a small example: On NPR recently I heard from Ford’s director of U.S. operations that car sales to new drivers have dropped significantly. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given this little stat a second thought, but then I heard the reason. He said “When we were young, a car gave you freedom. Market research has shown that young people today don’t need cars because they have the internet.” That’s where they find their freedom. That’s how they “connect” with the world and with each other. He mentioned this as justification for the advent of phone/internet connections in new model automobiles. That makes sense, but when I think about this quote in the larger context, it deeply concerns me both as a parent and a human being.
Is sending and receiving information to and from one another really a human connection? If the internet is where our children will go to connect with each other, that may become the standard definition of the concept. Still, I believe there are elements of humanity that will always be essential to our existence; empathy, honesty, generosity, kindness, love, trust and leadership. I view the combination of these elements (along with a few others) as life’s multi-tool. Sure, maybe you could survive being lost in the woods without one or two of them, but given the possible obstacles, doesn’t it make sense to carry them all with you when you hit the trail?
Frankly, it is becoming too easy to be callous, insensitive or even mean to other humans when all it takes is the click of a mouse. You can ignore or “unfriend” a person without actually having to even look them in the eye. You can write whatever you want, true or not and immediately share it with as many people as you want, all from the comfort and relative anonymity of your own home. Those who are well-meaning can be taken advantage of that much more easily and the crime can seem almost victimless because it’s all just a bunch of data. We should have seen this coming when the word “unfriend” became the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2009.
As the complexity of human interaction grows, the children who are not prepared -the ones without that multi-tool, could get lost in the quagmire between real life and digital life. Some will never be found.
Consider the Milgram experiment. It’s a famous (infamous to some) psychological experiment where test subjects administered an electric shock to a person in another room for each incorrect answer given to a list of questions. The voltage of the shock was increased for each wrong answer all the way to 450-volts -a lethal level. No one actually received a shock, but the participants were led to believe (in different ways) that this was entirely real. Incredibly, 65% of participants administered the lethal 450 volt shock. What is particularly interesting is that the more removed the participant was from the victim, the more likely he or she was to administer the lethal shock.
One of the conclusions we can draw from this experiment is that the less connected we are to each other, the easier it is to do harm. In this case, simply being out of sight, but within earshot was enough detachment for the majority of people to actually kill another human being. Even if you don’t take this experiment as entirely accurate (many do not), there are plenty of well-documented cases where individuals have inflicted serious emotional harm to others on the internet with devastating and even fatal consequences.
Here’s the good news, almost everyone is born with an innate understanding of good and bad (You should click on this link now and watch the video -it’s only 2 minutes long, but really amazing and life-affirming) In this experiment, nearly 100% of 6 month olds, when given the choice, chose a character that has been helpful over one that has been a hindrance. They gravitate toward good and shun the bad at 6 months old! So the question is, how do we go from there to the point where we are willing to kill another human being just because someone in a lab coat tells us to?
Perhaps along with preparing our children for the future, we should also teach our children to prepare the future for themselves. We can feel a little bit better that there will likely never be a computer generated replacement for a handshake or a hug. The technological industry is no doubt hard at work on the issue, but try as they might, they cannot convey the emotional connection behind the physical contact. Perhaps there are aspects of the internet that can make us feel secure, but trust, in its purist sense can only be accomplished through human connection. Love comes in many forms, but real, lasting, human love requires more than the exchange of information. So it is our responsibility to make sure that these things are important to our children. We must discuss, demonstrate and encourage all types of human interaction with our children. We should do this to that they will seek to find and create these things when we are not there to guide them. It is within these experiences that our children will know love, hope, joy and friendship, but also -and just as importantly, sadness, failure, disappointment, and awkwardness.
Those last four; sadness, failure, disappointment and awkwardness might not appear in everyone’s list of important life experiences, but they should. Many of us spend our lives trying to minimize and avoid these situations for ourselves. Most of us go out of our way to ensure that our children avoid them as well. For better or worse, we have all had ample experience with these feelings and most of the time it wasn’t easy. So it makes perfect sense that we would try to push them away wherever we can -especially from our children. Then we encounter friends and acquaintances along the way, we watch movies and read books and hear stories of others -real life people- who have overcome incredible adversity, failure, sadness, disappointment and awkwardness and we are profoundly moved and inspired by the knowledge. We see very clearly in ourselves and in others how these experiences help to shape us every bit as much, if not more, than the successful and happy moments. Each of us knows, deep down, that difficult times make the good times even sweeter and make us remember how life can be. They make us who we are.
There is one other very important reason to allow your child these experiences, because doing so creates an indelible connection to the emotional needs of others. Humans learn best through experience. If we don’t know what it feels like to be hurt, afraid, disappointed, ashamed, embarrassed or sad, how can we be sure that our words or actions are not causing others to feel this way? Why would we even stop to think about it?
It’s old hat for generations to long for the good ‘ol days and preemptively blame the destruction of society on the lifestyles of the next generation. Even as I wrote some of this, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like an old codger sitting in a rocking chair on the porch lamenting the invention of the automobile and the television. Still, throughout our history, whatever life-changing events or inventions have come about, the human element -our connectedness and shared ideals, always ensured that things rarely ever turned out as badly as the old folks predicted. Our relationships to one another provided all the control of error we needed. It was the one impenetrable wall after all of the dykes failed. This time, however, it is that very connectedness which is in peril. If this wall falls, how will our children survive the flood?