Sherry Turkle, PhD, is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT; and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She teaches about the psychology and sociology of how computers and cell phones change the way we learn, how we feel, and how they affect not just what we do but who we are. The author of a number of books, her most recent, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, was released in 2015 and investigates how a departure from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity — and why reclaiming face-to-face conversation can help us recover lost and valuable skills.
What got you interested in tackling in your book the effects of technology — smartphones in particular — on communication among young people today?
I became very involved with noticing that people were doing more texting than talking. Particularly young people were having conversations and looking at their phones at the same time. They were talking more about what was on their phones than with each other.
We know that when people do that they’re not able to maintain an empathic connection with the people they’re with. All the research shows that combination really is bad for the kind of empathy that teenagers, in particular, need to build to grow up effectively. So I began to study this issue.
As you mentioned, we see a lot of young people today communicating via text or posts on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. Can you explain the difference between connection and conversation?
Connection is a kind of degraded conversation. You’re sitting with a bunch of friends at dinner. You’re talking but all six of you also have your phones out. You’re dividing your time between talking to each other and looking down at your phone. You keep the conversation light because you’re paying attention to what’s on your phone. What you have at that table isn’t conversation, it’s connection. It’s conversation minus the empathy and the commitment to putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Online, we often settle for connection because we can’t do any better. You have connection when you have a Facebook interaction. You can acknowledge that you like something in a post, but it’s not a conversation. It’s connection without all the deeper things that can happen when you’re really with someone and involved with what he or she has to say in a deeper way.
You talk about the importance of solitude and the growing lack of empathy among people today. At first glance, those two things don’t necessarily seem related. Can you explain the connection?
This is the most important takeaway from my work. The capacity for solitude — the capacity to be at peace with yourself — is the groundwork for being able to form successful relationships. If you’re content within yourself, you can then listen to another person and really hear what he or she has to say instead of just projecting onto him or her what you need to hear because you’re not okay with yourself. Let them be who they are because you’re okay with who you are. This really is the most important building block of relationships. That’s what you want childhood to accomplish, what you want the lessons to lead to.
How do you think camp fits into promoting real conversation?
Children need to have a place to practice conversation. It’s a crucial skill that we are losing in our culture. Grown-ups are not stepping up, they’re stepping back. Eighty-nine percent of grown-ups said in their last conversation they pulled out a phone, and 82 percent acknowledged it was detrimental to the conversation (Turkle, 2015). Adults are modeling that for their children, and children are not learning how to have conversations.
We’re going to be shocked if this generation of children grows up staring at the floor. There needs to be much more self-consciousness on the part of camps that they are part of the solution. It really is a call to action.
Camps can do the right thing. They say no cell phones. But the reason I wrote the book (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age) was to really bring the evidence of the lack of empathy among children to the foreground so camps and other institutions can understand the critical role they play. As a culture, we haven’t owned up to the degree to which we’re letting our kids down. That’s a really important next step. If we acknowledged the extent of the problem, we would take ourselves and kids more seriously, and schools and camps would better understand their role.
So how big a problem is this lack of solitude and growing lack of empathy among young people?
A recent study of college students showed that two-thirds of males and a fourth of the females studied would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than be alone with themselves for six minutes (Wilson et al, 2014). They couldn’t be alone with their own thoughts. That shows that people are not willing/not able to have enough self-contentment to let their imaginations take them to someplace within.
Needing to turn to a screen is one of the greatest problems of our time. There has been a 40 percent decline in college students’ ability to experience empathy (O’Brien, 2010). Most of this decline in empathy has happened in the last ten years, which makes us think that it has to do directly with the rise of smartphones.
If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely. It’s a very bad impasse that we’ve come to. It’s a very dangerous impasse if after six minutes college students give themselves electroshocks rather than being alone with themselves.
The situation sounds pretty bleak. Is there no hope?
Reclaiming Conversation is an optimistic message. We can absolutely turn this around.
We have developed habits around how we are with phones that are damaging. It wasn’t a conspiracy. The people who developed phones didn’t say, “Here’s a way to mess around with the minds of children.” They really didn’t understand the unintended consequences. We really didn’t do ourselves a favor, and now we have to make it right. Camps are a very big part of this story. It is crucial that children have a place to go where they don’t have their phones.
Camps can be part of the turnaround in our culture, the coming back to ourselves, the kinds of conversations that are going to bring us back to our empathic connection with each other. Did you know within just five days at sleepaway camp, the capacity for empathy starts to be restored?
That is pretty remarkable. How do camps accomplish that?
Camps are a place where children can practice conversation. You can take a phone away from children in a nonpunitive way and give them the experience of talking. And solitude, imagination, mind wandering, and even boredom are such an important part of healthy mental life. Some children only have this when they go away to camp and their phone is taken away. Kids rediscover their imaginations when they’re at camp, and that’s tremendously important.
When the empathy levels that have been suppressed start to come back, in my own experiences at camp, children are aware of what’s changed. On a hike, they don’t even first comment on the scenery; they comment on the fact that their imaginations wander. I think that’s just amazing — that they’re so deprived of that happening that they’re commenting on the experience of letting their imaginations wander and not being constantly connected.
They talk about how their conversations at camp are better than their conversations with friends at home. Not because their friends at home are less interesting, but because they talk about what’s on their phones instead of what’s on their minds. When I visit dining halls in schools and colleges, kids have their phones out and they’re talking about what’s on their phones; at camp they’re looking into each other eyes and having real conversations about what’s going on in their lives. That’s very compelling.
If camps are lucky, they get kids for two weeks in the summer, and perhaps multiple summers in a row. Any advice to camp directors and counselors for making the most of that time and promoting real conversations?
I think they should do a little bit more in parent education, and they should educate their counselors about the importance of the story and their place in the story. There’s a sense that the lack of phones is good, but reaching out to explain to counselors what’s at stake and the roles they’re playing, and to parents about what’s been accomplished at camp and how to continue that in the home, is really important.
The skills developed at camp need to be brought forward into the kids’ home lives. Parents can’t step back; they need to step up.
[Cell phones and divided attention] — these are very ingrained cultural habits. But a lot is at stake. We’re really at a turning point. It’s too early to say that the game is lost, but we’re starting to see the cost. Children are extremely resilient, but we really need to step up and give them these opportunities for deep conversations and truly connecting on an emotional level — because they don’t have enough of those opportunities and children really want them.
That was one of the most stunning parts of my research — learning that children want these opportunities. They are tired of tugging at the hands of their parents, babysitters, and caretakers and having these people be on the phone. I don’t think adults realize the degree to which they are making themselves inaccessible to children. And now children are making themselves inaccessible to each other.
That’s why camps are so crucial.
O’Brien, K. (2010, October 17). The empathy deficit. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/17/the_empathy_deficit/
Wilson T.D., et al. (2014, July). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science. Retreived from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/345/6912/75.full
Turkle, S. (2015, December 9.) Personal Communication