2013 : WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

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Psychologist, MIT; Internet Culture Researcher; Author, Alone Together
Objects Of Desire

Children watch their parents play with shiny technical objects all day. Parents cradle them, caress them, never let them out of their hands. When mothers breast feed their infants, the shiny objects are in their hands, at their ears. When parents bring their toddlers to the park, they share their attention with the shiny objects to the point that children are jealous and indeed, often go unattended. Playground accidents are up.

As soon as children are old enough to express their desires, children want the objects as well and few parents say no. In parental slang, it has become known as the "passback," passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.

It has always been thus: in every culture, children want the objects of grown up desire. And so, the little shiny screens pass into playpens and cribs and then to the playground. Phones, pads, tablets, computers take the place of building blocks and modeling clay and books and dolls. The screens are interactive, scintillating, quite beautiful. They support an infinite array of simulations and worlds. Beyond interactivity, they offer connection with others. Of course, they are marketed as not just fun, but as objects of artistic creation and educational worth. They may be all of these. What we know for sure is that they are deeply compelling.

The screens make children three magical promises that seem like gifts from the fairies. You will always be heard. You can put your attention wherever you want it to be. And you will never have to be alone. From the youngest age there is a social media account that will welcome you. From the youngest age, there is a place where you can be an authority, even an authority who can berate and bully. And there is never, ever a moment when you have to quiet yourself and listen only to your inner voice. You can always find other voices.

We are embarking on a giant experiment in which our children are the human subjects. There is much that is exciting, thrilling here. But I have some misgivings. These objects take children away from many things that we know from generations of experience are most nurturant for them. In the first instance, children are taken away from the human face and voice, because people are tempted to let the shiny screens read to children, amuse children, play games with children. And they take children away from each other. They allow children to have experiences (texting, i-chatting, indeed talking to online characters) that offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, including the responsibilities of friendship. So there is bullying and harassment when you thought you had a friend. And there is quick, false intimacy that seems like relationship without risk because you can always disconnect or leave the "chat."

Children become drawn in by the three promises but they may lose out in the end. Why? Because talking to technology or talking to others through technology leads children to substitute mere connection for the complexities and the nuance of developing conversation. Indeed, many children end up afraid of conversation. In my studies of children and technology, when I ask children "What's wrong with conversation?" by about ten years old, they are able to say. To paraphrase their bottom line: "It takes place in real time and you can't control what you are going to say." They are right. That's what is wrong with conversation. And of course, particlarly for a child growing up, that's what is so profoundly right with conversation. Children need practice dealing with other people. With people, practice never leads to perfect. But perfect isn't the goal. Perfect is only the goal in a simulation. Children become fearful of not being in control in a domain where control is not the point.

Beyond this, children use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with themselves. For children growing up, the capacity for self-reflection is the bedrock of development. I worry that the holding power of the screen does not encourage this. It jams that inner voice by offering continual interactivity or continual connection. Unlike time with a book, where one's mind can wander and there is no constraint on time out for self-reflection, "apps" bring children back to the task at hand just when the child's mind should be allowed to wander. So in addition to taking children away from conversation with other children, too much time with screens can take children away from themselves. It is one thing for adults to choose distraction over self-reflection. But children need to learn to hear their own voices.

One of the things that modeling clay and paints and blocks did for children is that they slowed them down. When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. Children learn to do this alone, learning to experience this time alone as pleasurable solitude for getting to know themselves. This capacity for solitude will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. It is in this area that I have my greatest misgiving: the screen's promise that you will never have to be alone. We can already see that so many adults are terrified to be alone. At a red light or a supermarket check out, they panic and reach for a device. Our lives with screens seem to have left us with the need to constantly connect. Instead of being able to use time alone to think, we think only of filling the time with connection.

Why is solitude so important and why do we want to cultivate it in the young? Solitude is a precondition for creativity but it is also where we find ourselves so that we can reach out and have relationships with other people where we really appreciate them as other people. So, solitude is a precondition for conversation. If we aren't able to be alone with ourselves we are at risk of using other people as "spare parts" to support our fragile selves. One of the great tasks of childhood is to develop the capacity for this kind of healthy solitude. It is what will enable children to develop friendships of mutuality and respect.

Thus my worry for kindergarten-tech: the shiny objects of the digital world encourage a sensibility of constant connection, constant distraction, and never-aloneness. And if you give them to the youngest children, they will encourage that sensibility from the earliest days. This is a way of thinking that goes counter to what we currently believe is good for children: a capacity for independent play, the importance of cultivating the imagination, essentially, developing a love of solitude because it will nurture creativity and relationship.

In our still-recent infatuation with our mobile devices, we seem to think that if we are connected, we'll never be lonely. But in fact, the truth is quite the opposite. If all we do is compulsively connect, we will be more lonely. And if we don't teach our children to be alone, they only know how to be lonely.

I worry we have yet to have a conversation about what seems to be a developing "new normal" about the presence of screens in the playroom and kindergarten. When something becomes the new normal, it becomes hard to talk about because it seems like second nature. But it's time to talk about what we want childhood to accomplish.