Empathy Lessons for the App Generation

This week, Sherry Turkle picked up where she left off in her NYT article a few years […]


This week, Sherry Turkle picked up where she left off in her NYT article a few years ago, “The Flight from Conversation.” This time, Turkle, who has a new book out, is talking about the lack of conversation skills in today’s young people, but more importantly, how their lack of face-to-face interaction has deeper consequences for learning the lessons of empathy.

It’s almost yawn-worthy to hear yet one more scare-piece about the waning of human attention, or the prospect of a monstrous grown-up millennial generation, but it continues to be on our radars. As we discuss in the upcoming Technology Issue, we simply do not have the choice to be uninterested in technology these days–it is made for us, marketed to us, and bought by us. While very few of us would see ourselves “techies,” who know code or read PC Gamer, how many of us have checked the weather app today? How many of us thoughtlessly rifle off a text message?

As our lives become more and more tech-integrated, our use of technology also becomes less and less apparent. We begin confusing our real lives with our virtual lives, and the blurry distinctions cause us harm we tend not to (want to) notice.

Turkle here is indicating that there is a strong connection between empathy and solitude. I am reminded (beyond Louis CK) of Pascal’s famous line about humanity’s problems consisting of “man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Two Pascal lines this week?!) Turkle here conveys the human need to sit down with one’s self, to deal with one’s self, and while she doesn’t cover any religious dimensions, it is where prayer happens. For Christianity in particular, this is where repentance can happen, where we confront things we’ve done and things we’ve left undone. Here, in a discomforting self-appraisal, is the root of empathy with another human being.

The trouble with talk begins young. A few years ago, a private middle school asked me to consult with its faculty: Students were not developing friendships the way they used to. At a retreat, the dean described how a seventh grader had tried to exclude a classmate from a school social event. It’s an age-old problem, except that this time when the student was asked about her behavior, the dean reported that the girl didn’t have much to say: “She was almost robotic in her response. She said, ‘I don’t have feelings about this.’ She couldn’t read the signals that the other student was hurt.”

41AJupqLg9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The dean went on: “Twelve-year-olds play on the playground like 8-year-olds. The way they exclude one another is the way 8-year-olds would play. They don’t seem able to put themselves in the place of other children.”

One teacher observed that the students “sit in the dining hall and look at their phones. When they share things together, what they are sharing is what is on their phones.” Is this the new conversation? If so, it is not doing the work of the old conversation. The old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.

But we are resilient. The psychologist Yalda T. Uhls was the lead author on a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly, identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

I have seen this resilience during my own research at a device-free summer camp. At a nightly cabin chat, a group of 14-year-old boys spoke about a recent three-day wilderness hike. Not that many years ago, the most exciting aspect of that hike might have been the idea of roughing it or the beauty of unspoiled nature. These days, what made the biggest impression was being phoneless. One boy called it “time where you have nothing to do but think quietly and talk to your friends.” The campers also spoke about their new taste for life away from the online feed. Their embrace of the virtue of disconnection suggests a crucial connection: The capacity for empathic conversation goes hand in hand with the capacity for solitude.

In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.

Sherry Turkle on Being Alone Together from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

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