Raising Empathic Children in a Disconnected Age

Ask the Experts by Bart Bronk

Q: I’m worried about the considerable amount of time my teenager spends staring at her phone, but I also recognize what a powerful tool technology can be. What are long-term impacts should I consider?

A: You are certainly not alone in your anxiety about screen time. Common Sense Media, a leading nonprofit dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology, reports that the average teen today spends an incredible 6.5 hours per day staring at a portable screen.

First, let’s consider what your teen is experiencing. Her screen is a veritable Nirvana of the kinds of stimuli teens have always craved: dialogue with friends, interactions with the opposite sex, gossip, games, music, entertainment and, perhaps most enticing, a 24-7 reality show featuring the (heavily curated) lives of everyone she knows.

It’s the classic teenage experience available at the touch of a button, on-demand. There is no surprise it’s so captivating.

There are certainly many negative potential impacts to consider. From the world of neuroscience, we know that screen time creates addictive brain behavior that has been described as a drug-like in effect. Recent research suggests that increased screen time correlates with decreased happiness.

What worries me most, however, is what isn’t happening during those 6.5 hours. That’s time that used to be spent on real human connection. Screens give the illusion of connection (“friends,” “followers,” “snap-streaks” and the like) but actually fuel disconnection.

This disconnect blunts one of the most powerful and important traits we can develop: empathy, the ability to feel with another. Screen time can impact even the most basic form of empathy: the ability to recognize another’s facial expression. Researchers found that after just five days spent at a device-free camp, teens were substantially better at facial recognition than a control group.

What to do? Moderation is key. Set and enforce limits around phone time. Create spaces and times that are device-free for the whole family (dinner is a great place to start). Schedule device-free days and plan activities that require interpersonal engagement. Insist on eye contact in conversation. And, of course, be mindful of the model you set; be judicious about your own use of technology.

Bart Bronk is the Head of University Liggett School. Previous positions at Liggett include Provost and COO and Associate Head of School and Dean of Faculty. Before arriving to Liggett in 2013, Bronk was the Director of Admissions at the Church Farm School in Exton, PA and previously served as the Director of Institutional Giving and Government Relations at The Franklin Institute, Pennsylvania’s most visited museum. Bronk holds a B.A. (English) and M.S. Ed. (independent school leadership) from the University of Pennsylvania. His graduate research was on the development, perception, and expression of empathy in the school setting, a topic on which he regularly speaks to groups of educators locally, regionally, and nationally. University Liggett School is a member of The Family Center’s Association of Professionals.

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