It’s almost become a visual cliché: a group of people all standing near each other with their cellphones. Someone is texting, someone else is checking the internet; and another person is talking. No one is connecting face-to-face. Social scientists are watching what smartphones are doing to us; and many are concerned that we’re losing the ability to have face-to-face conversations with each other—at home, school, work, and church.
This past Sunday, Jonathan Franzen reviewed Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation. In his review, Franzen points out that face-to-face interactions increase our capacity for empathy. He observes, “When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.”
The dominance of smartphones in our lives raises significant risks for family life too. Just ask any parent of any teenager how easy it is get their children to unplug. Or, for that matter, ask any child how easy it is to get Mom and Dad off the laptop, the I Pad or their smartphone. Sherry Turkle speaks to these dangers in her book. Frazen writes, “But the most moving and representative section of the book concerns the demise of family conversation. According to Turkle’s young interviewees, the vicious circle works like this: Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.’ For Turkle, the onus lies squarely on the parents: ‘The most realistic way to disrupt this circle is to have parents step up to their responsibilities as mentors.’ She acknowledges that this can be difficult; that parents feel afraid of falling behind their children technologically; that conversation with young children takes patience and practice; that it’s easier to demonstrate parental love by snapping lots of pictures and posting them to Facebook…She calls on parents to understand what’s at stake in family conversations — ‘the development of trust and self-esteem,’ ‘the capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy’”
We have a strict “no appliance” policy at our dinner table. It’s in place as much for me as it is our boys. Leslie and I are committed to fighting this battle to keep us face-to-face with our sons. I hope we can fight together to face the encroachment of technology in our lives to keep our church facing each other