Healthy, Happy and Wise: Kids’ Offline Relationships in a Digital World
We all want our children to grow up to be happy. What would bring them happiness? Is it money? Fame? Good genes? No. There are plenty of people who have all of those, and they are utterly miserable.
It turns out that what makes a good life is the quality of one’s relationships.
This revelation comes from the Harvard Study of Adult Development — the longest study of human happiness, which has been going on for over 80 years. Researchers have tracked the lives of a group of men from 1938 for their entire lives.
They found that close relationships — not wealth or achievement — protect our physical and mental health, and lead to a longer and happier life. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Robert Waldinger, current director of the study. His TED talk, titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” has been viewed millions of times.
Dr. Waldinger explains why relationships are so important: “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster”.
What happens to personal connection in our kids’ digital world?
Instead of improving human connection, our devices, especially smartphones, diminish and impoverish it. Families feel increasingly disconnected from each other because everyone is staring at their own addictive screen. Digital friendships are shallow and fragmented.
The whole business model is geared for isolation. Kids may have hundreds of friends on social media, but feel utterly alone and experience depression and anxiety, the classic markers of isolation. Their wellbeing suffers from lack of close relationships, and experts assign the blame for the mental health crisis among young people on smartphones.
But wait a minute — they are so connected, they are communicating all the time! Doesn’t all the texting and posting and sharing build relationships as effectively as face-to-face conversations? No, it does not — says Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who spent 30 years studying the psychology of people’s relationship with tech. In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, she explains that conversation supports our relationships in 3 ways:
- Self-reflection: relationship with yourself
- Empathy: relationship with others
- Presence: relationship with the world
All three levels of relationships are essential for human flourishing. The problem is — devices disrupt them all.
Self-Reflection: Relationship with Yourself
In order to have a relationship with others, children first need to have a relationship with themselves. They need to define who they are — which cannot be done amidst online chatter.
Kids simply have no time to get to know themselves. Their digital self, designed for social validation feedback, always keeps them busy, and the internal work of figuring out who they really are is neglected.
This is the job of the Default Mode Network — an essential brain system that is only activated when we are doing NOTHING. It’s a state of no input. But when our children are overloaded with digital inputs every waking minute, there is no space for solitude and reflection.
As a result, they grow up without ever building their identity. They don’t take the time to process their own emotions. Their personality is a sum of their “Likes”. Always distracted by a screen, they never look within, define their values, or answer deep “who am I” and “why am I here” type of questions.
The time kids consider “socializing” on social media is a connection, but not a relationship. On social media, self-reflection turns into self-presentation, a performance for the unforgiving audience, leading to compulsive use, anxiety, and low self-esteem. An authentic self is absent, there is only a curated image, without which they feel like they do not exist.
This fake online self cannot afford to be vulnerable to give and receive empathy.
Empathy: Relationships with Others
Empathy is a skill that takes practice. It is acquired in face-to-face relationships, and experts raise an alarm that young people today are severely deficient in empathy because their entire social life takes place on their phones. They literally do not know how to talk to people, and it causes plenty of damage — to others as well as themselves.
A teen could offend a friend in a text message and not even notice. They do not see the pain they caused: face expression and eye contact are the kind of non-verbal feedback that only happens in a real conversation.
Online friendships fall short of a real relationship, and when romance moved to smartphones, the magic of love was lost. Instead of courtship, it’s swipe right on Tinder to hook up. To break up, send a text or just stop returning texts altogether — a behavior called ghosting, when someone cuts off all communication without explanation. It’s incredibly hurtful. Hearts are broken. Self-esteem is crushed. And young people who do this to each other do not even realize that a romantic relationship should look and feel completely different. Love deserves presence. Abandonment deserves the courtesy of a closure.
How would they build a relationship with a future spouse? How would they parent their future children?
As empathy diminishes in close relationships, they can no longer sustain human happiness.
A person completely devoid of empathy is called a psychopath — someone who cannot understand another person’s feelings, displays persistent antisocial behavior, is extremely self-absorbed, and hurts others with no remorse.
All very common behaviors on social media.
As parents, we can and should provide a safe haven from this online minefield. The love of the family is the sanctuary our children need. The miraculous effect of relationships can be found in a simple ritual of a family dinner. Research shows this is the most important thing we can do for our children: a study found that frequent family meals protect children from drug addiction, violent behavior, depression and suicide, while boosting their self-esteem and school success.
The benefits of a close family relationship only become possible when everyone puts their phones away, and looks, listens, and talks to their loved ones with full undivided attention.
In our family, when we sit down for dinner, no devices are allowed — this creates an opportunity for our 3 kids to engage in a conversation. Sometimes we play the “roses, thorns, and buds” game — tell me what went well today, what did not, and what are your hopes for the future? We all learn a lot about each other — and ourselves. Conversation takes work, but it’s what makes family life meaningful: paying attention to those we love. Isn’t this the whole point of having a family?
Presence: Relationship with the World
Beyond the circle of family and friends, there is a bigger world in which our children need to find their place. As long as humanity existed, opting out of relationships was never an option: we had to deal with each other to survive.
But with smartphones, kids can avoid traditional forms of communication. Calling teenagers is futile — they would not pick up. They would have to think what to say, react to other people’s emotions in real time, and process their own. Too much mental effort. So much easier to text.
A conversation is unpredictable, and therefore, uncomfortable — and one has to avoid discomfort at all costs, right? Wrong.
The default behavior for kids in uncomfortable social situations is to retreat into their phone. Avoiding the essential mental work of learning to connect with others. But when they insist on always being “comfortable”, this is exactly what makes them emotionally fragile and unprepared for real life.
I teach my kids to look people in the eye, introduce themselves, and engage in a conversation.
Because life is not a “safe space”. Tolerating social discomfort is necessary to get an education, build a career, start a family, or travel the world. Success in personal and professional life means investing time and effort to build relationships with others.
Our kids need to learn to pay attention to people. To look up from the phone.
Human brain is prewired for social connection, and when children are deprived of face-to-face contact, their social skills atrophy. It’s a “use it or lose it” situation, and addictive technology can compromise how successful their life turns out to be.
How are they going to communicate with their future colleagues and difficult bosses? Successful teamwork is still dependent on mutual respect built in a collaborative relationship. What kind of leaders would they be? After all, managers are still expected to interview candidates, conduct performance reviews, and fire employees. Business people testify that it is very hard to close a deal without being in the same room to shake hands.
At the end of the day, human connection matters. What we need is a technology built with the value of relationships in mind, technology that prioritizes children’s social development instead of maximizing their screen time.
Technology to Support Relationships
Humane technology allows us to guide our kids to healthier forms of human connection with a phone that helps children exercise their social skills, build empathy, and create meaningful relationships with friends and family.
A parent-managed smartphones used for communication, not addiction, is an example of such a technology. The idea is to give parents the power to turn a smartphone from a slot machine into a tool that supports children’s development. Parents can create custom modes to fit their child’s lifestyle: for example, make only certain apps available during the school day — like Google Classroom or a calculator, and after school activate messengers, Kindle for reading, and Spotify for music.
No matter what time of day, there is never anything toxic on the phone — no social media, video games, and web browsers are allowed. A curated list of apps includes WhatsApp and Google Meet to connect with friends — but your child would not have access to Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok to disappear down the rabbit holes of addictive content. There is no App store. Only the parent can add new apps, and the choice is limited to those approved by child psychologists.
If we want our child to be fully present in any social setting — a school field trip or a family dinner — we can temporarily disable all the apps and turn a smartphone into a basic phone.
The difference between technology that disrupts relationships and technology that supports them comes down to the phone as a digital drug and the phone as a tool.
When the phone is used for logistics to bring kids together instead of driving them apart, it’s a useful tool for connection. When it is used for social media, the urge to connect with peers is satisfied with a social media binge, depriving the child of life-long benefits of close relationships. By giving our kids technology built with their wellbeing in mind, we can support them in building relationships essential for their healthy growth and development.
Her research on the relationship between technology and psychology seeks to reveal how digital behavior manipulation affects human wellbeing.