Following a rollerblading accident that left my college-age son with a broken leg that required surgery, he spent several days recovering in the hospital. The cadre of professionals caring for him primarily seemed to interact with computer screens. This left my son often providing pain medication-tinged feedback to the backs of his caregivers’ heads with minimal eye-to-eye interaction.
As a mother, I was mortified. As a consultant who coaches executives and organizations on improving their communications skills, I chalked it up as another example of the toll our digital world is taking on human connections.
This impersonality and lack of human touch now cuts across just about every aspect of our lives—from receiving health care to buying everything from groceries to gas. And the implications can be especially unsettling for our children, who, as a result, are growing up with fewer opportunities to practice and master the art of face-to-face interaction.
For example, nearly four in 10 millennials say they interact more with their smartphones than they do with their significant others, parents, friends or co-workers, according to a 2016 study by Bank of America. And 71% use their smartphones to actually avoid social interaction, the survey found.
The problem is amplified because parents, educators and other role models often no longer model this behavior because they, too, have grown accustomed to living their lives with minimal contact with many people around them.
For Our Kids, the Digital Natives: It Can Be About Lack of Practice
There’s science behind the idea that young people aren’t learning these skills largely because they no longer have ample opportunities to practice them during the critical window when their brains are forming and when such insights and behavior become second nature.
These subtle cues include the ability to correctly read non-verbal signals such as slight changes in eye gazes, variations in speech patterns, shifts in body posture and other significant, but sometimes not-always-easy-to-discern clues, according to child and adolescent psychiatrist Jay N. Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. “Might the increasing reliance on digital social interactions hinder exposure to the ‘real-world’ experiences necessary to master these most important skills?” Giedd asked in a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Reliance on Technology May Require Better, Not Less, Human Interaction
As we strive to prepare our children to enter the real world, there’s evidence that the overreliance on digital, mobile communication isn’t doing them any favors. A study released in late 2016 by management consultancy Bain & Company suggests that the rise of digitally driven communications may paradoxically require sharper interpersonal skills for the thorniest workplace issues. In a possible reversal of the deference the job market for years has paid to technologically talented candidates, Bain recommends that rather than hiring tech experts and trying to train them to interact with customers and co-workers, that organizations instead hire for interpersonal and customer service acuity, and teach technical skills.
What Can Parents Do?
Developing desired behaviors and good habits in our children require guidance, practice and repetition. Parents play a critical role in orchestrating the “dress rehearsals” that develop what I like to call “psychological muscle memory,” along with the self-confidence that can inspire our children to behave, interact and respond appropriately, and prepare them to become articulate young adults.
Some things parents can do to help build these skills include:
- Make the family dinner—whether nightly or weekly—“together time” devoid of electronic screens, even in the background. All family members should be encouraged to converse thoughtfully and intelligently. Parents should ask questions like, “What was one good thing that happened today?” or “What is something your learned today?”
- When ferrying children to school, after-school activities or other events, elicit and encourage opinions from them. And don’t let them punt with a “What do you think?” response. They have to speak their minds first.
- Although ATMs have long been ubiquitous, visit the local branch of your bank and have your child open an account, with only nominal guidance from you. For younger children, have them instead exchange loose change for currency. These acts will require kids to interact intelligently with a professional regarding something important to all of us: money.
- Most parents have defaulted to TV or computer games as ad hoc babysitters on occasion, but as much as possible, encourage your kids, their friends and their friends’ parents to limit screen time to no more than 20 percent of playdates, get-togethers and sleepovers. Doing so encourages more interaction and creativity, which benefit all children as they mature.
- Other opportunities for younger children include having them place their own restaurant orders with servers, request stamps at the post office, ask questions about animals at a pet store, or querying a grocery store clerk about where to find a specific product.
Taking these and other steps will not only nurture more interactive, engaged and confident children, but also can prepare them for the world in which they’ll need to look up from their screens to succeed.