Summer Notice: Your Child is a Social Animal, Not a Virtual One

A few weeks ago I attended a truly radical event: a street party.

We moved into this neighbourhood just over four months ago. It’s a quiet, safe area, which is great.  No anti-social behaviour.

Yet, there isn’t a lot of social behaviour, either. After four months, I had only met a few neighbours , and let me be clear that this is as much my fault as anyone else’s.  So, imagine my surprise when I went to the street party and found out that there are actually many people who live near us.  And they are friendly, helpful, interesting and generous.

What struck me the most was the number of children we have in our neighbourhood. I had never seen most of these children.  Certainly they don’t play out in the neighbourhood.  My son is 11, and it turns out that there are several other boys his age who live a stone’s throw away from our house.

As I spoke with the parents of these boys, we discovered that we all have the same problem:   our boys want to stay indoors – rain or shine – and play computer games.  We all have to encourage them strongly (forcefully?) to turn off the computer, X-box, or whatever and do something else.  Now that we parents know we are all in the same predicament, we can insist that our boys go find each other and play – properly, face to face, in the real world, as opposed to a virtual one.

Screens and Socialization

I’ve written before about my concerns with children and ‘screens’. They are many.  Yet, what concerns me on a more fundamental level is the way screens are changing the way that we interact with our environment, and with one another.  Translation:  it’s hard to get our kids to play outside, and it’s hard to get them to play with each other.  I write with particular urgency as summer vacation is now upon us.  I am bracing myself for all the arguments which will inevitably ensue whenever I utter the words ‘Go find someone to play with’, and ‘No, you cannot go on the computer, ipod, ipad, etc., or watch a movie.’

An increasingly typical scene in an American home – one I have seen in both my home and other homes – is each sibling, in the middle of the day, engaged with his or her own screen, not talking to one another. Our children are growing up, battery-reared and staring at a screen, rather than ‘free-range’ and enjoying the company of human beings in the flesh.  Sue Palmer, in her book Detoxifying Childhood, reports that UK researchers found that the majority of ‘6 to 8 year olds now prefer to look at a blank screen than a human face.

Technology is certainly changing the way that we socialize. My question is:  it affecting our ability to socialize?

Humans As Social Beings

Most philosophers have argued that as humans we have a social nature. Often they disagree with one another as to what kind of society we should create once we get together.  Yet, these discussions on different kinds of society do not override the widespread agreement among philosophers that as humans, we need each other in some way.

Aristotle argued that both the home, and the wider association of the ‘city’, are natural organizations for human beings.   The home is established because men and women have a ‘natural striving’ to reproduce, and need each other to do so.  Aristotle calls the home a kind of ‘partnership’.  Characterized by the familial affection between spouses and their children, it is certainly a place which fills our social needs to an extent.  However, Aristotle argued that there are further partnerships beyond this familial affection, which humans seek to fulfil their material needs.  The polis, or city, comes into being as families reach out to form associations with others beyond themselves.  This wider association allows us as humans to benefit from one another’s knowledge and skills regarding how to live.

Thus, for Aristotle, it is natural for man to live with others in society. Although he thinks that men come together initially to better fulfil their material needs – that is, for the ‘sake of living’ – he believes that society exists ‘for the sake of living well.’  ‘Living well’ for Aristotle means living a specifically human life, one that, according to him, means living according to reason.  Reason is our capacity which enables us to understand right and wrong, and thus live a moral life.  So, on this Aristotelian view, living in society enables us to develop and use our human capacity to be moral to a greater extent, and to greater effect, than we could if we lived in isolation.     

Now, there are many ways in which this Aristotelian notion of society is compatible with our advances in technology. Indeed, the internet provides us with an incredible kind of society where we can associate instantly with people far away, or with people we have never met.  It gives us a very powerful way of exchanging knowledge and sharing skills regarding our material needs, and our moral needs.

Virtual Socializing vs. Real Socializing

Yet, there are also ways in which technology has the potential to undermine society. It can do this by undermining our sociability among those people with whom we are physically present.

Our virtual communities often seem to take precedence over our physical communities. This is true of both the physical ‘community’ of our families, as well as our wider physical communities, like our neighbourhoods and towns.  My teenagers can go days without speaking to anyone in the house, yet they have communicated with hundreds of people on social media.  I went months without meeting my new neighbours, although I ‘met’ many new people on Twitter.

To my mind, the problem with this is that the ability to socialize with people ‘in the flesh’ is a skill. As such, it needs to be developed.  It doesn’t just happen.  And virtual socializing, for all its benefits, often seems to stop the development of these ‘real’ social skills.

Technology and Socializing in the Home

Technology’s undermining of social skills starts in the home. The home is the first place we learn about sociability.  It is there that we learn to communicate, and how to treat others.  Yet, technology stops communication and interaction in the home.  If my son is explaining to me the finer points of the military operations of some imaginary Lord of the Rings/Star Wars universe he’s created in his head, all I have to do to get him to stop talking is to give him my phone. If my children are fighting, one sure fire way to get them to stop is to hand out the i-pods.  Then, all is quiet.  No fighting, but also no talking.  No need for each other, but also no interest in each other.  In a word, no sociability.

If we aren’t interacting much in the home, that means we aren’t practicing how to be social. For Aristotle, one of the biggest indicators of our social nature is our ability to communicate through speech.  It is through speech that we communicate not only our needs and our wants, but also our concepts of right and wrong.  Although Aristotle thinks that the city is the place of deliberation and discussion on moral matters, he says that the home, too, is characterized by a sense of morality. So in the home, we practice.  We practice our moral reasoning, and our problem solving.  But we can’t do that if we don’t talk to each other.  

Yet, social skills are not only undermined by reducing our interactions. They are also undermined if we stop interacting in a certain way.

Physical communication demands that we give our attention to one person at a time. It takes place in ‘real time’, so it demands that we slow down.  And the most effective physical communication incorporates eye contact – that is, looking at a human face.  Virtual communication doesn’t sit well with these demands.  It enables us to communicate with many different people – with whomever we choose – all at the same time. Yet, it competes with our physical communication, and suddenly we are no longer able to look someone in the eye and give them our attention, without being distracted by the texts or notifications that 50 other people are sending us every couple of minutes.  We’re more easily distracted, and less able to focus on the people around us and their needs.  What kind of community (family, neighbourhood, or town) can we build if we can’t pay attention to what is happening right in front of us?

Technology marches on, but we can’t let it march on us. Fact:  we have a social nature which cannot be fully fulfilled, or fully expressed, in a virtual community.  Our physical communities, and the social skills which they require, still form the foundation upon which our virtual communities exist.  It’s not the other way around:  we cannot pour all of our energies into the virtual world, and expect our physical communities to flourish, as if by magic.  This is true, first and foremost, of our families.

So, it’s the summer.  Turn off the i-phone, i-pad, computer game, or the movie.  Look into your children’s eyes, and have a conversation. The future of society depends upon it.

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2 comments on “Summer Notice: Your Child is a Social Animal, Not a Virtual One

  1. Thank you Holly, again a thought provoking message! “Technology marches on, but we can’t let it march on us” is such a good phrase, can I quote you?!!

  2. Amy says:

    This is a great and timely post. (From someone who loves her neighborhood in which one can always find kids outside…) That said, I think you’re hitting on two problems, not just one, and both equally worthy of attention. That is, a parent can’t simply restrict screen time and then expect that natural social interaction can occur. If the children remain in highly structured play opportunities (i.e., NOT of the “free range” sort), it seems to me they still will not acquire the social skills you discuss here. They need to be free (within reason) to engage with one another and the :culture of childhood.” If all their activities are of parents’ design, I don’t think they will thrive socially. I’m not sure what philosophy has to say about this parallel problem, but I’d love to hear it!

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