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.

Children, Happiness, and Screen-Time

     As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do?  Maybe you are trying to raise your child to be really good at school.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on an instrument.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded.  Whatever goals you may have for your child, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind:  we want to raise our children to be happy.

     Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that everything we do in life aims at some purpose, which for him is synonymous with some ‘good’ or ‘end’.  Some of our actions are meant to accomplish smaller or lower ends; for instance, I do the laundry because I want my children to wear clean clothes.  However, all of the lower ends we aim to accomplish are done for the sake of something higher, until we come to the highest end in life, the ‘chief good’, which is the thing that we aim at above everything else – the thing that we want ‘for its own sake.’  And that chief good for man, according to Aristotle, is happiness.   

     However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal.  That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness.  For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy.  No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.

Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children

     So often my children seem unhappy.  Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household:  restricting ‘screen-time’.

     Perhaps like many other parents, have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’.  I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone,  ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing. 

     First, there is the addiction issue.  I have teenagers who live to socialize.  If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours.  But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’.  Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media.  There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music.  And I don’t think they are the only ones.  If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be well and truly addicted to their screens.

     Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue.  With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location.  So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation.  With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing.  The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and at times my children need some convincing that there is a difference between the two.

     There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here – for instance, the addictive nature of computer games, especially for boys, and the ever-present danger of pornography – but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t.  No screen during homework.  No screen during music practice.  No screen during family mealtimes.  No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.

     The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive.  The true extent of their resentment was revealed to me when one of them compared taking away her screen to the performance of female circumcision.  The other one said, ‘My friend would have committed suicide by now with these rules.’  Apparently we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal – and, according to them, completely unthinkable to anyone else – practice of screen extraction.      

Aristotle’s Happiness:  Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses

     Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night!  There have been times when self-doubt has crept in.  Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions?  Am I fighting the right battle?  Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?    

    I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now.  This is not to say that I think we should ignore our children’s immediate concerns and feelings; only to say that Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.

     In the last entry I talked about Aristotle’s idea of the human good, which is that man reaches the good for him as a human being when he lives his life according to reason.  As may be clear by now, the human good and happiness, for Aristotle, are closely linked:  those who achieve the human good are those who are happy.

     Yet, there is more to Aristotle’s concept of happiness.  Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well.  It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not.  Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character.  So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process.  It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.

     We have already established that to act according to reason means to use one’s practical reason to control the impulses, desires and emotions that we have as part of our human nature, so that we feel them and act on them in the right way.  Along this same line of thought, Aristotle thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal.  Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child.  It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.

How to Help Children Be Happy 

     Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end?   To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals.  Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually giving them your full attention and talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.  

   Following these impulses may make your child feel as though he is happy, and all of his friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses.  Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world.  Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction to the enforcement of your restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness.  Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.