We can't develop as moral agents on social media

In this extract from his new book, Morality, former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks examines what our embrace of digital communication means for society

March 12, 2020 13:08

In the course of making a podcast together, a woman from Silicon Valley talked to me about her family. She had become concerned that her children were in danger of becoming addicted to social media.

Their use of it was harming their social skills. They weren’t fully attending to other people. They always had half a mind on their smartphones. The time they spent on Snapchat, Instagram and other social media was absorbing their energies and robbing them of sleep. Even when the family was sharing meals, they were still texting friends, their phones on their laps underneath the table.

After discussion, the family agreed that there was a problem and that they would deal with it together. The decision they took, she said to me, was that they would have one screen-free day a week – no phones, no tablets, no laptops, just face-to-face communication, being together. “You will like the name we gave the day,” she said. “We’ve decided to call it Shabbat.” She was right. I enjoyed the irony. Thirty-three centuries ago, Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery to Egypt. Now, the same institution is liberating young people from slavery to smartphones.

We need such liberation.

[…] Given all the nay-saying about the negative impact of social media, some of which will appear in this chapter, it is important to note the positives. Social media connects families and friends across the world. Often nowadays, when I officiate at weddings, someone will be livestreaming the ceremony for the sake of relatives who, because of age, illness or distance, could not be present in person. That may seem a minor phenomenon but it can be a deeply moving one. Social media can enhance community. They have enormous educational potential. I use them heavily in my work as a way of teaching people across the globe. [...] There is enormous power in these media for good.

But there are real problems too. In 2017 Jean Twenge, at San Diego University, published iGen, subtitled Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, a definitive account of the research evidence thus far of the impact of social media on children’s physical and mental health. It makes a disturbing story.

Twenge documents the fact that recorded levels of life satisfaction among American teenagers stayed relatively stable until 2012, when they suddenly began to plummet. Likewise, numbers of teenage attempted and actual suicides stayed stable until they began to rocket in 2012. Why this particular year? Because, she argues, this was when ‘iGen’, or Generation Z — children born on or after 1995 — were in their teens. This was the first generation to grow up with both smartphones and social media as part of their taken-for-granted environment.

According to Twenge, the effects are substantial and disturbing. Teenagers in the US are spending on average between seven and nine hours a day watching a screen: two hours a day on the internet, two and a half hours texting on smartphones, one and a half hours a day on electronic gaming, half an hour on video chat, and two hours a day watching television (not all of this is necessarily sequential: they multitask). This is robbing them of social time, time spent meeting and relating to people face to face.

In 2015, Sherry Turkle reported that the average American adult checks their phone every six and a half minutes. A quarter of American teenagers are connected to a device within five minutes of waking up. Most teenagers send a hundred texts a day. Eighty per cent sleep with their phones beside them. Forty four per cent do not disconnect even in religious services or when exercising.

There is accumulating evidence that smartphone exposure is robbing children of their sleep, not only because of the time they spend on them, but also because of the effect of the particular quality of light reflected from a screen — blue light — that has a negative effect on sleep. In one survey in 2015, 43 per cent of American teenagers reported that they had less than seven hours sleep a night, regarded as the minimum for good health. Children need sleep for their cognitive and emotional resilience.

The psychological effects are more disturbing still. Children compare themselves to the profile of their friends on the social media. They see those profiles and relate themselves negatively to them, forgetting that that profile itself has been carefully edited and curated. They are comparing their own reality with the highly selective version of other people on the screen. This leaves many of them feeling inadequate and depressed.

[...] The sheer cumulative impact of spending that amount of time watching a screen, and responding to the rapid pace of social profiles, is reconfiguring the brains of young people so exposed. One study presented to the Radiological Society of North America in 2018 reported that young people addicted to smartphone use showed chemical imbalances in the brain. Another, in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, showed that the mere presence of a smartphone, even when switched off, reduces cognitive capacity. It is as if we have become so attentive to our phones that we find it hard to concentrate fully on anything else. The benefits of the smartphone as a hub for information, entertainment and social stimulation, say the researchers, may come at a cognitive cost.

It has long been suspected that the sheer pressure of information in the electronic and digital age has had the effect of diminishing attention spans. To be sure, the evidence for this is largely anecdotal. For the past few years parents have been telling me that they find it difficult  to get their children to read a book. If a story can’t be told in five minutes, it can’t be told at all.

One recently published study by researchers from the Technical University of Denmark does, though, show that when it comes to items in the news, global attention spans have indeed reduced over time. So for example a 2013 Twitter global trend would last for an average of 17.5 hours, while one in 2016 would last for only 11.9 hours.

Another research report, by researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine, questions the use of smartphones and tablets by parents to pacify very young children. When parents use these devices to do this, they may be damaging their social and emotional development. Dr Jenny Radesky, one of the team that produced the report, said, “If these devices become the predominant method to calm and distract young children, will they be able to develop their own internal mechanisms of self-regulation?” These digital devices “could be detrimental to later social-emotional outcomes when used as the principal way in which children are taught to calm themselves down”.

[...] More and more, human interaction is no longer taking place face to face but electronically. Siblings text one another even when they are at home together. Teenagers say they prefer to communicate by text rather than in person because texting is less stressful. The end result is that they show a marked decline in empathy and social skills over previous generations.

 [...] True communication involves personal presence. One of the first people to draw our attention to what is going on when two people meet and talk was the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islanders in the 1920s. He noticed that a significant part of their day was spent talking to one another, but almost none of it took the form of information-exchange. Meaningless or trivial though it seemed, this chitchat was performing an important social function. It was creating relationship, “bonding”. In the fugue of conversation we listen; we pay attention to another person. We reply, and the words we say are a response to the words we hear. Speech is the medium of relationship. He called this “phatic communion”, meaning speech as the touch of two selves, their presentness to one another, their mutual non-hostile exposure.

Coming from a different direction, the Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing proposed a test for artificial intelligence. What would a machine have to be able to do for us to be convinced that it is a form of intelligent life? His answer was: we would have to be able to hold an extended conversation with it. The counterpoint of listening and speaking is at the heart of what it is to be a person — what it is to establish a moral, as opposed to a purely instrumental relationship.

[...] Social media have played a significant part in the move from ‘We’ to ‘I’. In the world they create, I am on the stage, bidding for attention, while others form my audience. This is not how character is made, nor is it how we develop as moral agents. Morality is born when I focus on you, not me; when I discover that you, too, have emotions, desires, aspirations and fears. I learn this by being present to you and allowing you to be present to me. It is this deeply subtle interaction that we learn slowly and  patiently through on going conversations with family, friends, peers, teachers, mentors and others. We develop empathy and sympathy. We learn what it is to receive acts of kindness and then to reciprocate them. Morality is about engaging with the raw human vulnerabilities of others that lie beneath the carefully burnished image, and about our ability to heal some of the pain. I learn to be moral when I develop the capacity to put myself into your place, and that is a skill I only learn by engaging with you, face to face or side by side.

[...] Two famous Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century placed interpersonal relationships at the heart of their philosophies of the moral life. Martin Buber famously contrasted two modes of relationship: I–It and I–Thou. In an I–It relationship, we see the object of experience as something to be analysed, classified and quantified. My primary question is: to what use can I put this object in front of me? He called this, experience.
The other kind of relationship, I–Thou, he called encounter. Between us, there is relationship. We are part of the same world. We are capable of transforming one another. An enormous amount of communication in the modern world is done at the level of I–It. That is what makes us feel alienated, part of a primarily impersonal world. But what really matters to us ultimately is the encounter with another ‘Thou’. The supreme example is the relationship we call love, and it is at the heart of moral and spiritual life. It is this that contains a signal of transcendence.

[...] Even more powerful is the account of morality given by the French philosopher Emanuel Levinas. Levinas believed that moral obligation is born at the moment when we encounter what he called “the face of the other”. His view was that some basic act of recognition takes place when we make eye contact with another human being: here is a person to whom I have duties because he or she is a person, even if, in the biblical phrase, they are an orphan, a widow or a stranger. In this immediate, pre-reflective encounter, morality is born. “The face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation,” he wrote.

“The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.” It is only when we encounter another human being that we begin to communicate and construct a shared world out of the act of communication: “Meaning is the face of the Other, and all recourse to words takes place already within the primordial face-to-face of language.”

To be fully human, we need direct encounters with other human beings. We have to be in their presence, open to their otherness, alert to their hopes and fears, engaged in the minuet of conversation, the delicate back-and-forth of speaking and listening. That is how relationships are made. That is how we become moral beings. That is how we learn to think as ‘We’. This cannot be done electronically.

The immediacy of global connection offered by social media makes it, potentially, one of the wonders of our age. But it must not become a replacement for face-to-face relationships in real space and time, which is where the moral life is born, lives and has its being.

‘Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times’ by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20)

March 12, 2020 13:08

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