– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

From our abilities to love and imagine through to our raw capacities for reason and rage, we are all the embodiment of ancient systems of relating and survival. Unlike computers we have seen no major genetic upgrades or redesigns in, oh, about 50,000 years. In contrast, technology continues to rocket forward keeping pace with Moore’s Law, which anticipates that digital technology will double in speed every two years.

Where family had once been the hub of our lives, our touchstone to and experience of values and beliefs, now everything digital shapes and informs the development of minds. Dear reader, it is a huge, huge shift.

Gadgets like VCRs and computers began to babysit our little ones from the 80’s onward. Some research points to the brain-shaping effect of quick edit and fast-paced videos and games, perhaps contributing to the erosion of our ability to pay attention for more than four seconds.

The earliest papers on the social implications of internet communication offered pessimistic predictions of users suffering thin, less nourishing human connection. We’re now marinating in Blackberries, Twitter and texting. All of these technologies have highly addictive qualities, scream for impulsive use and relay little of the richness of our lives. Research shows that a fraction of the meaning relayed in a face-to-face communication comes from the words alone, that voice, face and body communicate much more – we can’t be reduced to emoticons.

Interestingly, a gender imbalance is developing in internet use along the predictable lines of women going for connection and men opting for information.

Tech-connect is typically used with friends and acquaintances. Texting simulates time together, drawing on our imagination to fill in the gaps. Or we can easily tune out. While technology has expanded the size of our social groups dramatically, the costs are in the quality of the contact and in losing contact with those in the same room.

Professor Sara Konrath reported on an ongoing, 30 year study of almost 14,000 students at the University of Michigan. They found a recent 40% drop in empathy scores in undergraduates. One reason may be that the new mass farming of friendships cultivates less love. Perhaps our violent videos and games numb youth to others’ pain, resulting in flabby empathy and a callous funny bone.

So there’s the good, the bad and the ugly for families from connection technology. The bad and the ugly must include all of the time and life wasted with mindless and inconsequential involvements, isolated hyperconnectedness, online gaming and the underworld of porn, cyberbullying. Remember that technology is about business first and consumption before healthy experience.

And the good for family includes texting as an expanded family awareness system, an aid to keeping in touch with each other and a means for safety when kids are out. The internet brings to us an indescribable amount of information, the quality of which is improving in many ways. There are lots of parenting resources, advice and affirmation. Parental concerns that were kept in embarrassed privacy before can now be googled.

Please work hard to keep some balance in the family. There is no substitute for real (and healthy!) connection. A firm finding is that teens from families that regularly have meals together – and not in front of the TV! – are less likely to act out. More family dinners leads to less running away, drinking, drug use, violence, theft and vandalism.

Finally, for much more consider Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget. He brought us the term ‘virtual reality’ and is a computer scientist who has deep concerns about technology uprooting our humanness. Or perhaps take some time and just consider the book’s title.