Friday, February 11, 2011

Alone Together:Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other(book review)

Just this week,I have been meeting with parents of teenagers and discussing how technology is changing our relationships with our children and each other. A recent study showed that the average American teenager sends or receives 3,000 text messages each month.I have noticed that most of my patients under age 40 prefer to e-mail me to schedule appointments, rather than leave voice messages.I am talking in session with adults who feel ignored by their partner's relentless obsession with their Droid, Iphone,or Blackberry.Children and teens bemoan parents who seem unavailable or scattered as they multi-task parenting with clearing e-mail and messages,instead of giving their full attention. What is the blessing of technology connecting us all the time doing to our relationships?

I am currently reading Sherry Turkle's new book,"Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other"(Basic Books,2011).Turkle is a clinical psychologist,the Rockefeller Professor of Social Studies and Technology at M.I.T, and the Director of M.I.T.'s Initiative on Technology and Self.She is also the mother of a teenage daughter,and has personally experienced the technology dilemmas that modern parents must bravely face.It is a whole new world in terms of communication, and we are the parenting pioneers who get to navigate adolescent development combined with facebook,texting,skyping and all the rest.Turkle reports on her fascinating research on how all of this is changing our relationship with ourselves and others.The world has changed, and we need to begin the converation on how we integrate the technolgy without losing intimacy, real friendship,and being present and available to those we love the most.

Turkle's research findings about adults in relationships with robots raises interesting questions about people who get their needs for connection met but are,in fact, alone. Think of the movie from several years ago,"Lars and the Real Girl". It may serve a purpose, but what a self-absorbed and reductionist view of relationships.For all the ups and downs,real relationships are more interesting, and help us to mature and grow more accepting and loving.Even though, as Turkle writes,"People dissapoint;robots don't".

Turkle also studied people who spend more time,and get more enjoyment,in their alternative life and identity in on-line games than they do in real life. One has to contemplate what will happen to our planet if this level of social withdrawal increases.As parents, we need to make sure we launch young adults with social skills and the ability to successfully communicate,negotiate,and relate to other people.We need to require face time,volunteering,family interaction at meals and other times. No texting at the dinner table,please!

Turkle explores how real intimacy is messy---real partners and friends also come with their own needs. You can't just relate at your convenience. Many teens enjoy the speed and effectiveness of texting,and it provides for timed,witty statements and the ability to disconnect at whim and stop interacting.None of these aspects are available in real-time face-to-face conversations.We have to be careful about how much technology is good, and where the limits need to be. I like the title of the book, because I think "alone together" is the perfect desciption for a lot of family and couples interactions I see. One only has to watch Modern Family on ABC Wednesday nights,as the New York Times deftly pointed out recently,to observe how family interactions are twisted up in technology use and misuse.

And what about the need for silence? And being still to think or daydream? One huge loss with unbridled use of technology is living so plugged-in that we miss out on moments with others and important time alone.Remember when noone could reach you as you ran arrands? When did we all become so indispensible that we musy always be reachable?

I heartily recommend this thought provoking read. Connectivity does have its discontents. Finding reasonable limits is important to preserving real intimacy, with all its fears and complications.

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