07/23/2014 12:29 EDT | Updated 09/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Why We Must Teach Digital Natives How to Be Alone


Emily, 13, wakes up and rolls over to kiss her smartphone good-morning. Not an actual smooch, naturally, but a virtual kiss of attention, a kiss of grazing fingertips as she calls up 34 missed messages. The swarms of comforting "contacts" deliver new material -- texts about a sleepover, photos of Slurpees, links to new cat videos -- and the possible solitude of the morning is banished. The question that drives her is not "what shall I do today?" The question (more passive) is: "what did I miss?"

2014-07-23-9781443426275.jpg Emily is not extraordinary. In fact she's typical: nobody texts more than girls aged 13-17; the latest research from Pew found their median number of texts each day is 100, in fact -- double the number that folk just 10 years older manage. Our teens are not alone in the digital morass, of course; we're all swimming in new oceans of content: we upload 100 hours of YouTube video for every minute of the so-called "real life" we live; we produce 6,000 tweets per second. Indeed, it's estimated that more than 90 per cent of all the data out there was created in these last few years. And, for the first time, parents can know that their children will have more interactions with avatars than with warm-blooded people.

We're all part of the matrix now. Yet there is still a crucial difference between teenagers like Emily and the rest of us. Anyone my age and older (I'm 34) can still remember life before we went online, life before the digital maelstrom. My peers and I are the last folk in history who will ever know life both with and without the Internet. That means we have a certain duty to transmit our pre-Internet history to Emily and her set. For Emily and all the billions who come next, the Internet will simply be the air they breathe -- and the air is difficult to notice.

I believe the most crucial thing we need to teach digital natives is how to be alone. When Emily turns 18 and backpacks through Europe, she will text with her boyfriend dozens of times each day. For that matter, she won't ever get lost in the streets of Paris because her phone will constantly track her, monitor her, with a mother-hen GPS. She and all her peers will never experience a true, sustained absence.

Of course, by the time she's 18, Emily won't be interested in hearing about the fuzzy values of solitude and daydreaming and reverie. Like a type two diabetic, she'll have a system that's been irrevocably altered by years of mismanaged media diet. Which is why we need to tackle the problem in advance. Yes, every communication technology -- from papyrus to the printing press to Pinterest -- brought us great gifts; they also led us away from earlier frames of mind. And, in the case of the Internet and smartphones, that may leave us with impoverished interior lives.

And this is not just history as usual, either. When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, the Reformation and Enlightenment that his machine helped to usher in took centuries to roll out. Our lives, by contrast, are instantly and expansively reimagined within a single generation. This is truly a Gutenberg Moment rather than an era.

We've never before had folk on both sides of a communication revolution butting up against each other so closely. And I think it's a fantastic opportunity. It means we have the chance to preserve those moments of solitude that are in danger of becoming extinct -- pass them on to the next generation.

In these few summer weeks before school returns, and with it the cyberbullying and manic communication, too -- the tweeting, the texting, the Snapchats and Instagrams -- will we engineer for our children some small experience of being alone?

Emily's day is filling up. She's showered and eaten breakfast, and dipped 17 times into her network of 1,437 "contacts" before plunking the cereal bowl in the dishwasher. If we engineer moments of solitude for her -- and yes, that means taking the phone away not as punishment but because it's simply good for her -- she will complain, she will whine, she may even freak out. Addicts do that.

I did that myself when I abstained from the Internet and my mobile for a full month last year. I called it my Analogue August -- it was tough, it was lonely, and I'm so, so glad I did it. (God knows I wouldn't have gotten to know my neighbourhood otherwise; and I wouldn't have finally finished War & Peace, either.)

Maybe the only way to prove to our children that a little solitude (a little digital abstinence) is healthy will be to model the behaviour ourselves, after all. A shoebox full of cellphones, up atop the fridge? A pledge from the whole family to take one weekend off from the Internet this August?

Here's the thing: being alone -- really learning to love solitude -- becomes so much easier if we're raised in a household that expects occasional solitude, that encourages and praises it. We may need examples of aloneness in order to really break away from that crowded digital culture; we may need parents modelling solitude if we want children to develop those rich interior lives.


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