ABU DHABI // Addiction to phones and preference for digital communication is damaging our culture, family and mental health, a leading US psychologist said.
Increasing reliance on technology to interact is leading to less empathy and more depression, said Sherry Turkle, a social studies professor of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She was speaking on Wednesday during the second Ramadan majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
Prof Turkle, who has studied the relationship between humans and technology for more than 30 years, said she finds more people admitting to avoiding in-person conversations.
“A phrase that came up again and again was, ‘I would rather text than talk’,” she said.
Avoiding face-to-face interaction is decreasing our ability to empathise with others and have meaningful conversations, she said.
Prof Turkle, who said she was not anti-technology but pro-conversation, said an alarming statistic was 89 per cent of Americans admitting they took out a phone at their last social encounter.
“Just the presence of a phone on the table, even if it is turned off and face down, turns the conversation to a trivial topic, and there is a drop in empathy,” said Prof Turkle.
Children and adolescents were most vulnerable to unfettered use of social media and technology for communicating. Fear of missing out, envy of the projected lives of others and fear of unedited and open-ended conversation could increase depression among adolescents.
“We preach authenticity but we practise curation,” she said. “You don’t present yourself doing laundry online, you present a curated version of yourself.”
Social media companies can detect mood based on online activity, creating vulnerabilities for youth, such as targeted advertising for psychotic medication, Prof Turkle said.
One study showed youth’s extreme dependence on online access. Researchers paid college students to sit in a room without access to a phone or book and placed next to them an electric-shock device.
It took an average of six minutes before the students began testing the device on themselves.
“We are losing the ability to be comfortable with solitude, which you need for conversation. If you can’t be comfortable with who you are and be that person, then you can’t empathise,” she said.
The lack of empathy among children could cause cyber bullying, she said.
Societies and families can promote meaningful conversation by creating spaces in homes, universities and workplaces where devices are not permitted.
Other ways could involve educating consumers, increasing technological literacy and talking for seven minutes before using technology.
“Let the conversation unfold. If there is silence then let it be,” Prof Turkle said. “When we are silent, struggle and stumble, that is when we become ourselves.”
The lecture was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of State, and officials and dignitaries.