The Fundamental Question Neither Alexa nor Siri Can Answer, But We Must

Recently, as I waited for an appointment at a coffee shop, I noticed a table with a dad, a woman that seemed like a good friend, and an older twinkling-eyed lady that from all indications was a special out-of-town guest. She talked with an accent and had brought uniquely crafted gifts for everyone. A girl about ten or eleven, the man’s daughter, sat with them.

Physically beside them, yet emotionally distant, she stared at a cartoon on her iPad and when bored with that inserted ear buds and began swiping her smartphone. While the adults carried on an animated conversation with lots of laughter, the girl’s expression remained indifferent. She looked up with the same blank expression when the elder woman offered her a gift. The man thanked the lady. He didn’t cajole the girl to say thanks. He did smile awkwardly as he took the gift, meant for the girl, who didn’t move a muscle to receive it. Not saying a word, the youngster settled back into her screen machine as the adults continued their lively interchange. She stayed that way the entire time. Even when they got up and left, she kept her gaze on her smartphone as she walked out the door, silent, preoccupied.

Like you, I have seen this tech family tableau many times before. Kids glued to a small screen, not present to the 3-D world around them, or all family members tethered to their devices, oblivious of each other. This time was different for me.

As fate would have it, I was reading about a concept called “Robopaths,” developed in 1972 by sociologist Lewis Yablonsky, who worried back then about the toll of a high-tech culture. As I observed the sad scene, I was actually reading:

“People may in a subtle fashion become robot-like in their interactions and become human robots or robopaths. This more insidious conclusion to the present course of action would be the silent disappearance of human interaction. In another kind of death, social death, people would be oppressively locked into robot-like interactions.” (Orlov, 2017)

Observing social death unfolding right before me as I read about social death was unnerving. “This changes everything,” I thought.

Two disturbing realizations occurred to me:

  1. Research won’t save us. All the research in the world about media’s impact will not change a thing for parents caught up in mass culture’s agenda for families. As an educator I value research findings as the underpinning of important information to determine best practices. Yet, contradictory research findings confuse parents, obfuscating essential issues. And, of course, experts will never all agree about complex systems; they can’t. Waiting for them to agree dooms us.
  2. Media literacy/media education won’t save us, either. This is a difficult one for me to accept because I so believe in and will continue to teach, promote and advocate for media/digital education–but now with new eyes. Sitting with chills down my spine as I kept peeking at the girl’s expressionless face hoping for a change in affect, something else stared me down that I couldn’t ignore—this thought:

Parents can talk to kids about reducing screen time or help them discern inappropriate media content from educational, healthy types—all they want. But these conversations become frustrating and often futile if children’s cognitive, emotional, and social developmental needs are not being met at the same time. A consistent pattern of uncooperative behaviors and surly attitudes prevent children’s willing participation in family media literacy activities.

While I yearn for research and media/digital literacy/education to make a significant impact, I also know they can’t make positive changes fast enough to counter the industry culture’s swift negative influences. For decades we have been telling, urging, and “shoulding” parents to make changes and look where it got us?

With social death and its normalization well underway, we speed up social death if we continue along this path.

We must start by first meeting children’s and teen’s developmental needs.

Most people know the developmental needs of our gardens, our crops, our forests, of our animals and pets. If we don’t attend to their needs, they end up with disease, illness, sub-optimal outcomes, even death. Over the past two decades of brain research, we have made huge steps in identifying the real developmental needs of our children and teens. So why is it so hard, as a society, to focus our attention on understanding and meeting vital human needs? Why are so many parents in this age of information left rudderless without basic knowledge of brain development to be able to grow children as easily and naturally as they grow their gardens?

Living in a culture we don’t create ourselves means we have to be super intentional and brave to be different. And we have to start focusing on what supports flourishing life in human, living systems.

I really don’t want people to become more like robots as robots become more like people—that’s not the world I will create by action or inaction. So, I must return to the fundamental question I have based my work on over the last thirty years, both as a parent and as a professional who helps parents:

“What is best for this child NOW?”

This question often leads to clarifying important assumptions such as:

  • What’s best for optimal development at every stage of growth, birth through young adulthood?
  • What’s relevant, appropriate, timely, and most productive for this child to flourish right now?

And those questions naturally lead to parental pondering like:

  • What’s best for my child according to my values as a parent?
  • What’s best for my child according to the image I have of her as an adult?

Jennifer Joy Madden, a health reporter and digital journalism professor, author of How to be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design, admonishes all of us: “Push to prioritize human needs.”

Absolutely. “Push to prioritize human needs” must be everyone’s mantra if we are to replace social death with social life.

Let’s see what could have happened if the dad in this story and the adults around the girl kept what’s best for the girl in mind; if everyone prioritized her human needs over her pseudo-need to be with her screens.

A Probable Story

The dad decides that he wants his daughter to be engaged in adult conversation because he knows it teaches her how to interact socially and, importantly, it helps her understand that she belongs to this community of adults—that her contribution to the conversation is important to them all. The adults want to hear what she has to say!

So before the outing, he would have a conversation with his daughter about it.

“Sweetie, I am looking forward to our time with Sophie and Irma. I am delighted you will be with us. You can bring your iPad and cell phone, but I don’t want you to take them out until I give you the go-ahead.”

“But I’ll be so bored just sitting there, listening to everyone.”

“You may be…but not if you ask questions and participate in the conversation. Let’s think about some questions you can ask. What are you curious about Sophie’s country, for instance?”

From there the girl uses her intellect and imagination, as her dad helps her write some questions down on note cards she can ask the lady guest. The dad has taken 20 minutes out of his busy day to prepare his daughter for the adult time because he knows that it’s an important thing for kids to participate in conversations—that it helps them grow a healthy emotional and social IQ. Plus it’s pure delight for him to observe his daughter thinking and creating.

So now, back in the coffee shop, this is what I observe:

The girl sips her hot chocolate as the older woman tells stories about her country and the people she knows there. The girl enjoys the stories, so she asks her questions. The two women, taken by her questions ask her how she came up with them. Such creative questions! The girl tells them how she thought up the questions, which leads to another lively interchange with lots of warmth and laughter around the table.

Then the woman takes out her special gifts and hands one to each of them. The girl listens to the story attached to each gift. When it’s her turn she is eager to share an idea—saying thank you quickly, she tells the older lady that she can look up the town where the lady’s gifts came from on her iPad, and they all can see pictures of it as the lady tells her last story.

“What a marvelous idea,” the adults agree.

The girl pulls out her iPad from her backpack and researches the small town, She has to go several places on the web to find the best pictures of the old village. While she does this the adults pass knowing glances around the table, silently proud of how the girl is using her tech knowledge to contribute to the conversation.

The girl cries out in glee when she finds the type of pictures she had envisioned, and passes the iPad around for each adult to see. The older woman asks the little one to choose her favorite. The girl does and the lady places the iPad in the center of the table so they can all look at the beautiful photo as she tells her last story.

When they stand up to leave, they all hug goodbye. The girl and elder woman walk out, smiling, their arms around each other.

Caring interactions enhanced by technology, a young girl’s creativity, and a parent’s fundamental question: What’s best for my daughter in this situation?

Human relationships come first when we put what’s best for our children first.

Long live social life!


Gloria DeGaetano, Copyright, 2017.


Lewis Yablonsky quote from, Shrinking the Technosphere, Dmitry Orlov, New Society Publishers, 2017, p. 194.