Parents, Not Kids, Are the Biggest Abusers of Technology

Psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of a new book, explains why it’s essential to unplug.

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Parents complain that their kids spend too much time texting and surfing the Web. But it may be that the biggest abusers of new technology are parents themselves. Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies how people use technology, says she has found that children are worried that their parents’ love affairs with BlackBerries, iPhones, and computers are fracturing their families. Turkle elaborates in her new book, Alone Together (Basic Books, $28.95), and in this edited interview.

Your book surprised me because you really take parents to task for paying more attention to their technology than to their children. Did you expect that when you started the project?

I expected to be writing a book about teenagers driving their parents crazy. It turned out to be a much more compelling story of parents texting in the car, parents texting at dinner, and kids not knowing what to do. It was a very surprising finding. And very moving. The stories really were about children wanting parents’ full attention.

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What did the kids tell you during interviews? 

They’re tired of being pushed on the swing with one hand while [Mom reads] her E-mail on the phone with the other.

I was really shaken by the story of the mom who never looked up from her phone while picking up her daughter from school.

When children come home from school, that’s the moment when they’re desperate to make eye contact with you. In this case, a 13-year-old girl [emerges] from school [where] her mother is waiting in the car. And the mother never looks up from her phone. To make it worse, the [girl’s] parents are divorced, [so] it may [have been] four days since she [last saw her daughter]. And she still won’t look up. The car is moving and she still doesn’t look up. The girl describes such a sense of longing. What is [her] mother doing that’s so much more important than looking at her?

Then I interviewed the mother. And it turns out that this is not an abusive, uncaring situation. This is a loving mother. But she is overwhelmed. Here is someone who is unthinkingly not giving her daughter something her daughter so desperately needs. We can do better than this.

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You say we often fail to unplug under the mistaken belief that we’re being more efficient. What do you mean by that?

My favorite story is of [a] girl who is Skyping with her grandmother. She’s also doing her E-mail. From the grandmother’s point of view it’s great. But the girl is miserable, because she feels as if she’s paying no attention to her grandmother, [when] the whole point of this is to be there for her.

And you say there’s a biological explanation for why we love to multitask.

The reason multitasking feels so good [is that] our brains give us extra shots of dopamine [a brain neurotransmitter that affects mood] for every new task we multitask. We’re actually being rewarded chemically for every new task. But with every new task our performance is degrading. So if you’re emailing and putting contacts in the Rolodex, maybe it’s OK if your performance is a little degraded. Those things are degradable. But when we use these technologies of efficiency and bring them into our intimacies, we bring them into an area where we do ourselves damage.

So what should we parents do?

The mom who’s on the phone while pushing the kid on the swing has defeated the whole point of taking him to the playground. The whole point is to give each other full attention, and to create what I call sacred spaces around certain aspects of life.

What spaces should be sacred?

Dinner. No devices at dinner. That is a time that’s precious. We really just need to be with each other at dinner. Obama puts a basket for phones outside of the Oval Office. It doesn’t strike me as a bad idea to put one outside the kitchen. It’s just not the place.

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And even though it doesn’t seem like it, the car is also a sacred space. It’s for driving and for conversation. Watching sports with your kids—in between plays, during commercials—that’s a time when the child is willing to talk to a parent.

You say that using electronic gadgets is different than reading a book or doing chores; it’s harder for kids to get parents’ attention.

There’s a very big difference between your mother doing the dishes and not giving you her full attention, which is what most people grew up with, and your mother being immersed in E-mail,or texting, or being online and not giving you full attention. One is an immersive gripping interactive activity, and the other is the kind of thing where the volume and velocity and pacing allows for interruption and shared attention.