Parenting and Multi-Tasking in the Digital Age

As a psychologist and mom of two young children, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent in the digital age. A lot of people have already talked about how we feel tethered to our digital devices, and need to multi-task in order to juggle the constant demands on our attention. We’re no longer on the information superhighway – we’re in the Cloud. Which is exactly how I feel a lot of the time – like my head is in a cloud – unless I very purposefully step back and focus on being in the present with my family and friends.

But there are several issues from the standpoint of developmental psychology that I think aren’t discussed enough. I’ll focus on just two, here. The first issue is a child’s need to be genuinely seen and heard – or mirrored – by parents. The second is that we are teaching our children profound lessons about how to relate to other human beings when we multi-task with our devices instead of being present with them in the moment.

Mirroring. Parenting wisdom a few generations ago asserted that children should be seen but not heard. This is really incorrect in several ways. There is a classic concept in child psychology (originated by Heinz Kohut) called mirroring. Mirroring refers to the healthy process by which parents mirror or reflect back to children what they are saying, feeling, experiencing, wondering. Parents also look at children with a “sparkle” in their eye – that look of pride, warmth, and love that tells children they are appreciated and esteemed. Through this mirroring, children learn to understand their own behaviors, thoughts and emotions. They also learn self-regard and self-appreciation. Simply put, children learn to see themselves through our eyes.

Without this mirroring, many child developmentalists believe that children will not feel fully valued as human beings and will not as quickly and deeply learn to understand how to interpret their experiences and feelings. Imagine a world in which no one really looks at you or hears what you have to say – maybe some of us can. But then imagine you’re a child, and not really able to make sense of the world that goes on around you and the complex feelings and experiences you have. How do you give all these things a name? Mirroring would help you interpret your world and yourself.

Multi-tasking on our devices all the time is a sure-fire way to interfere with our ability look our children in the eye, hear what they have to say, sensitively pick up on their feelings, and transmit that sparkle in the eye. The multitasking mode is the opposite of mirroring and of being present.

The lessons that multi-tasking teach our children. This is a complex issue because I DO NOT think that doing some multi-tasking around children will “damage” them. That is ridiculous. From the very beginning of our evolutionary history, moms and dads were doing other things while spending time with the kids. In many cultures today, children are expected to join in with whatever adults are doing, and spend lots of time amusing themselves and playing independently –more perhaps than is expected in the U.S. on average. These sorts of cultural/value/belief differences about how to raise kids are totally ok differences. That is, no child developmentalist will tell you that we should be worried about this.

However, in this particular culture within which I live, many of us raise our children to be individualistic, with beliefs and desires that even from the earliest childhood are prioritized. The flip side of this is that while we are respecting them as individuals, we also should have the goal (I believe) of teaching them to respect and cherish others as individuals. When we multi-task on our devices every time we spend time with our children, I think we are sending at least three messages that in some ways are contradictory to this goal:

1. We don’t need to fully pay attention to other people, or be fully present.

2. When the multi-tasking is about work – there is no boundary between work and personal.

3. Even when we’re with others, it’s normal to be tethered to a device.

So, the advice I give myself goes something like this – “Alright, sometimes I’ll multi-task. I’m busy and have things I just have to do. At the same time, I will keep it to a minimum when I’m with my children and identify times that are sacred, when the devices go off (e.g., bedtime, breakfast, dinner, afternoon play time, etc,…) and stick to this.

This is my best guess at how to handle it. But only time will tell – will the Millennials (and generations beyond) lose some of what we hope all children will learn? – To deeply value others and the time we spend together, and feel deeply valued in return.

 

Top 7 Ways Blogging Changes My Consciousness: Meta-Blog 1

As a new blogger and as a research psychologist, I’ve been very interested in how blogging has actually changed the way I think about things, how I feel, and the choices I make. So, I decided to start tracking my experience as a user of this particular type of social media by blogging about blogging – or meta-blogging. I’m my own little case study. Here’s my Top 7:

1. I’ve been shower blogging. That is, I rehearse blogs in the shower. When I have what I think is a good idea, I stand there and practice (out loud usually) how I would blog about it. Now, one issue with this is that I don’t have pen and paper in there for obvious reasons, so I forget half of it. Eighty percent of it, really. Even when it sounds SO brilliant. Then there’s the issue of shower logic. It’s like when you dream something and it seems so perfectly logical and genius in the dream, but then you wake up and realize it was gobbledegook. Shower blogging is kind of like this for me. And there is risk attached, too: if you get really carried away, you might forget to wash some parts of your body, so that you find after a few days that your right elbow or whatever is completely filthy.

2. I have a busier mind. Shower blogging is a symptom of this. Essentially, I find myself spending much more of my mental time zooming from one thought to another, time having an internal conversation with myself, and time skimming various streams and feeds (and here I mean, Facebook and Twitter – funny how these words evoke nourishment and natural, bucolic settings….maybe a picnic by a stream?). See, this is what I’m talking about. My mind zig-zags with all its loose associations. And I cultivate that to a degree, because that’s how good ideas emerge. I think this is fine and fun in many ways, but I’m doing it A LOT more than usual, and it tires me out a bit. And I worry that I’m less present for my kids and husband and friends.

3. I’m thinking more about being mindful. An interesting side benefit of having a busier mind is that I have a greater desire now to become a more mindful person – having more stillness in my life, and spending more time in the moment. I’ve started to make meditation a deeper habit in my life again, and I’m trying very hard to keep off all devices when I’m with my kids. I don’t want to be that mom who can only give 41.5% of her attention to her kids while she multi-tasks five other things. Don’t get me wrong, moms have to multi-task – Jeez, do we ever. But my goal is that when I’m with my children and spending time, they really feel SEEN by me, really engaged with and listened to and – hopefully – understood.

4. I keep better track of interesting ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I really like this part of it. Just think how many ideas we just let go because we’re in the middle of something, or walking around, or have in the middle of a conversation and just forget. I try harder to hold onto some of these BECAUSE I think they might make an interesting topic for blogging. I’ll see if this yields anything, but already, I feel my intellectual life is enriched. As a scientist, I do this for my science ideas, but let other stuff go. I think this could be a mistake, and perhaps the ideas in one domain (e.g., science) will be enriched and in turn enrich my blogging ideas.

5. I write with an imaginary audience in mind. I can almost see their faces. Lit by the glow of their computer screens or devices. They are avidly soaking up my every word. Right….. So, essentially, I am becoming more self-centered. Is this any different from writing a letter? Maybe there is more pressure when the imaginary audience is a group or crowd? I think at this historical point in time, as a society we have a deep desire to be seen, to have our 15 minutes OR MORE, to be the next viral video or whatever, to be famous. Is blogging a way to satisfy this urge to some degree?

6. I feel cleverer. Emphasis on the “feel.” It’s pretty clear that I’m not cleverer. Although the process of putting ideas down on paper makes me feel like there is more going on up there in the old brain. I do a lot of scientific writing, and strangely enough, this does not make me feel particularly clever. Perhaps because it’s just what I do? Perhaps because with blogging, I’m using a part of my brain that has been rusty. Whatever the case, this feeling of being clever is very rewarding and I suspect it is part of my motivation to blog.

7. I feel more connected. I really do. And this is an interesting psychological phenomenon, because at this point in my blogging career, the nature of this connection is very tenuous. It’s literally in my head – an imagined web of connection, of shared ideas, of simpatico. I think for bloggers who have built a large community, this feeling is much more real. But, one has to wonder where this is all going. Online connections (that stay online) can be very emotionally satisfying, but they are more superficial and are not what the current psychology tells us is a “true” connection. They are quite a bit easier than other types of connection (i.e., face-to-face, long-term relationships and friendships), so some worry that we are withdrawing into these easier online relationships at the expense of our “real” relationships. I really don’t know if that’s the case. I don’t see it in my own life (although my husband claims I drift onto Twitter in the middle of a conversation. Oops). But this is something I’ll be watching!

The New Digital Divide

The digital divide typically refers to the gap between those who do and do not have access to information technologies, most notably the internet. But I think a new kind of digital divide is emerging – one focused on the use of social media and computer-mediated tools for social interactions. The gap is not so much based on socio-economic status, or geography, or race and ethnicity. Rather, it is based on a set of beliefs about human interactions, self identity, and technology.

Social media can be polarizing. As I see it, people tend to fall into one of two basic camps. Let’s ignore those inhabiting the middle ground and think about the extremes for a moment:

“Members of the Digital Tribe”: These are the people who keep their devices next to their bed and the first thing they do when they reach consciousness in the morning is check their newsfeed. These folks like to feel “plugged in” and connected to their digital community. They want to have information about the world at their fingertips.

These folks are knowledgeable, on top of the news, feed off of others’ cool thoughts. I would argue that many of us drift into the tribe – habitually checking emails or newsfeeds or tweets. But a true member of the digital tribe believes that life is best lived when a fair portion of it is broadcast to their online social network.

We all define ourselves in the context of our social network – our friends, loved ones, enemies, acquaintances. The digital age has allowed us to stretch this sense of self to include much vaster webs of social connection. Yet, in the case of social media, many members of our network are strangers. Does this mean we feel increasingly comfortable being a stranger and talking to strangers?

Values about privacy likely vary – some folks who live a fair portion of their life online may believe that privacy is overrated, and that sharing random thoughts and experiences is as valid as sharing deeply genuine feelings. Other may feel the opposite.

Members of the Tribe hold up the mirror of social media, look in, and see themselves. And what a fascinating and beautiful mirror it is. Incredibly rich; almost too much to process.

These are the romantic technophiles.

“Worried Outsiders”: Worried Outsiders are not necessarily the “disconnected.” Instead, these are the folks that probably use at least one or several forms of social media. But, in their dark moments, when they’re sitting at the café thinking about life, or laying awake in bed at night, they may picture a future dystopia in which we scuttle around in some anti-social, dark, cityscape and are ‘jacked into” some virtual digital reality via our brain stem. Think Blade Runner meets The Matrix.

These are the people that are REALLY annoyed when they find out about their sister’s engagement – on Facebook. These are the people who still prefer a nice conversation on the phone to other ways of getting things done. These are the people who daydream instead of get on their devices to fill the time.

These might also the same people that might have, if they were alive at the time, voiced grave concerns about that new fangled device the telephone when it first came out. Or the television. Or anything that changes how we interact as social and emotional beings.

That is not to say that this group is comprised of luddites and romanticists (although there are surely some here). Instead, these are the ones that wonder about where it’s all going… and whether it’s all good.

This is Your Brain on Facebook: Social Media and Teens’ Emotional Health

Social media are an integral part of the social landscape of teens today. This seems to have happened overnight, and now we are faced with some difficult questions: What does it mean if teens spend more time interacting via social media and less time interacting face to face? Should we be concerned that teens post suicidal thoughts on blogs rather than talking directly to parents and friends – or just feel relieved that they are telling someone? Is there a problem with the fact that, for many teens, it seems ok to break up a romantic relationship over text?

The short answer to these types of questions is: We have no idea. Scientists know next to nothing. Policy makers are shooting in the dark. Pundits and talking heads and techno-sages have a lot to say, but no basis upon which to draw conclusions. Yet these questions are incredibly important given the growing ubiquity of social media.

As a scientist and mother of two, I am particularly interested in the impact of computer-mediated social exchanges on kids’ social and emotional development. I think this is a major public health and social policy issue that has only begun to be addressed – at least in a way that is backed up by scientific evidence. Some may say these questions are alarmist, but others may ask why it’s taken us so long to ask them. Whatever the case, we need answers.

My intuition is that computer-mediated interactions and social media will create a world in which lots of good things can happen – social movements can blossom, people who feel lonely can feel more connected, and people who already have a rich social network can better stay in touch with their loved ones. And things I can’t even imagine will be the norm when my young children are teens. My own 3-year-old is already completely at ease with technology, and I am quite certain that he will find it natural to connect with others in computer-mediated ways.

But my intuition is also that something has fundamentally changed, and that social media represent a way of connecting that is different from how we evolved. We evolved to talk to each other face to face, to share emotions in real time, and to interpret even extremely subtle signs of emotion in the faces, voices, and bodies of our social partners. These experiences are also the basis upon which our “emotional brains” develop normally. That is, without these experiences, we cannot develop the empathy, emotional sensitivity, and ability to control our emotions that are fundamental to being human.

If social media increasingly replace face-to-face interactions, then kids today may have fewer opportunities to build these basic social and emotional skills. Skills like empathy require that we are emotionally sensitive enough to see that someone is upset, that we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes, and that we offer support. If we are busy posting, texting, and tweeting our thoughts and experiences, do we have less time and ability to support others and in turn receive support?

A recent study suggests perhaps so. Published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior, the team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. By the study’s physiological measures, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all. The authors concluded, in an interview with Wired – “people still need to interact the way we evolved to interact.”

It’s very important to note that interacting in ways that differ from how we interacted a hundred thousand or even a hundred years ago isn’t a bad thing. We didn’t evolve to drive cars, or have penicillin. And the modern world is unthinkable without a vast array of technological advances that are evolutionarily new.

But some think that social media may indeed be derailing our emotional evolution. A survey study by Konrath and colleagues published in 2010 suggests that college students today (“Generation Me”) have less empathy and are more selfish than students 20 years ago. Researchers conjecture that social media may be the culprit…. but there is little direct evidence to support this.

In my lab, we are trying to unravel such possibilities. For example, in a study we will soon submit for publication, we showed that college students who use more social media are less emotionally sensitive to faces – they don’t interpret emotional facial expressions as accurately as those who use less social media.

In this study, we used a computerized facial morphing task in which neutral faces gradually “morph” into mad, sad, or happy faces. This task is meant to measure emotional sensitivity, because to do the task well you need to be able to correctly identify very subtle signs of emotion in the face. We found that people who are frequent Facebook users (more than 8 hours a week) made more mistakes when they were asked to identify happy faces than infrequent users (less than 4 hours a week).

So, this finding might mean that by using Facebook frequently, we are becoming less sensitive to emotion – happiness in particular. But it could also mean that people who are already a little less sensitive to subtle emotional expressions choose to use more social media. Importantly, these are correlational data, so we can’t draw strong conclusions about cause and effect.

For this reason, it is crucial to conduct research that can actually get at cause and effect. I have just such a project in the works. The plan is to follow teens from the time they are 13 until they are 17. I’ll track what types of social media they use, how often they use them, why they use them, and if they prefer social media to face-to-face interactions for doing certain things (like sharing emotional experiences). Then I’ll test how these patterns of social media use directly influence changes in teens’ emotional strengths and weaknesses over time– their empathy, emotional sensitivity, their brain functioning, and how well they control their emotions.

By scientifically tracking teens over time, we can start to unravel whether social media drive our emotional lives, whether social media just reflect the way we already are, or whether both are the case. Without research that considers all these possibilities, we just can’t know which is true.

Social media are social tools like any other, right, neither good nor bad? – happy people can use them to share ideas and experiences; troubled people can seek out healthy or destructive social connections; bad people can find victims; and the socially awkward can find a safe haven.

Or maybe social media are very special indeed, and will have a profound impact on how we live as social and emotional beings. This is the question I am most interested in. I think we all embrace the idea that social media will change us in some way. And now, we must spend time, energy and resources to figure out exactly how.

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