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MIT Better World

Prof. Sherry Turkle says if you don’t teach your children how to be alone, they only know how to be lonely.


By Liz Karagianis

“That’s why we’re so busy communicating. We’re seduced by the possibility that we’re always connected, always wanted, always needed,” says Sherry Turkle, adding that we’re so enmeshed with our connections that we neglect each other.

Recently, Turkle published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Based on 15 years of research and hundreds of interviews with children and adults, the book tells the story of the new disturbing relationships among parents, children, sweethearts, and friends and reveals that beyond our incessant communication lies a deep human need for stillness, solitude, and intimacy.

“Most people love the technology, but we’re texting at meals, texting at funerals. Are we willing to just be on a treadmill of communication without real connection?” says Turkle — the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society — who is founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

In her book, Turkle offers the example of a 16-year-old boy, who got 100 text messages during the hour she interviewed him. As he set out to reply to them, he told her: “I can’t imagine doing this when I get older.” And then, more quietly added, “How long do I have to continue doing this?”

“This feeling is common among young people,” she says, adding that many teens she interviewed dislike being “always on,” but it’s the only life they know. Many grew up with two parents texting at the dinner table or had mothers who pushed them on the swing with one hand and scrolled through the BlackBerry with the other.

“Multitasking teenagers are simply teenagers. They want and need adult attention,” Turkle says, adding because they grew up overcommunicating, “I think many will say, ‘I’m not sure I want to do that when I am a parent.’”

We’re performing

We don’t need to reject the technology, she says, just put it in its proper place.

Sometimes, Facebook is great, like for sharing photos or organizing a reunion. But, she adds, there are other forms of sociability, too — “your ability to sit with a friend and talk about her problems at work, or about her mother who’s getting older, or about a death in the family, or an illness. None of this happens on Facebook.”

Recently, she says, a woman tells her Facebook friends she is thinking of suicide. “And nobody responds. And when you interview those friends and ask, ‘Why didn’t you respond?’ They say, ‘Well, I didn’t think I was really her friend.’”

“With social networking, we’re performing. We put forth our best face, the one that will be seductive. You can’t be your real self.

“People are using technologies for intimacy that were designed simply for efficiency. They’ve become popular in the area of intimacy because you don’t have to reveal yourself. You can compose what you want to say until it’s exactly the way you want.”

Also, she says, the new technologies demand instant responses and offer us less time to think uninterrupted. “We don’t allow sufficient time to consider complicated problems. What’s ‘out there’,” she says, “is often just a lot of half-baked ideas,” because that’s all the speed of the technology allows for.

Another thing, she says, “there is a new sensibility. I call it, ‘I share therefore I am.’ You can’t have a feeling or a thought without sharing it. That’s dangerous, because with this orientation you’re always looking to other people for validation. You don’t allow yourself to have your own thoughts and feelings.”

No autonomy

Turkle writes that the cell phone has become a safety net for young people. “Many have divorced parents, families broken two or three times, some have parents who work out of state or out of the country, some have parents with travel schedules so demanding that their children don’t see them. These teenagers live in a culture preoccupied with terrorism. They all experienced 9/11. They have grown up walking through metal detectors at schools and airports. They tend not to assume safe passage. The cell phone is their safety.”

Parents give a cell phone to their child and expect them to answer. But she writes: “The tethered child does not have the experience of being alone with only him- or herself to count on…There used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment, when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible.”

“The cell phone prevents that experience,” she says. “And when you’re connecting with 100 people in an hour, what kind of autonomy is that? If you don’t teach your children how to be alone, they only know how to be lonely.”

Along with the convenience of technology, we pay a price, says Turkle, who urges us: Instead of sending an email, talk to colleagues down the hall. And “no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company.

“No matter how difficult, it is time to look toward the virtues that Henry David Thoreau pointed us toward — solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment.”