In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT Science and Society Professor Sherry Turkle bemoans the current state of conversation—or the lack thereof. Replaced by gadgets and gizmos that are supposed to keep us more connected, social media divides us. “Likes” on a Facebook page often replace smiles at a dinner table. Is it any wonder that 83 percent of adults find the constant interruptions from cell phones unnerving?
At a gut level, these perturbations in the natural flow of our conversations impact our well-being. Why bother spilling your emotions if you do not have a person’s undivided attention—if no one is listening? This lack of human interaction, however, has even deeper implications. It is robbing us of our humanity. Professor Mike Tomasello from Duke University reminds us that though we share 99 percent of our genetic makeup with the apes, humans are ultra-social. We thrive on connecting with others. And we use our sophisticated social acumen to figure out just what a person meant irrespective of what she said or did. These features of connectedness are built upon a foundation of human interaction.
Human conversation and interaction occur with intricate timing. Adults can deal with mistimed responses from a person glancing down at her incoming texts. Adults have learned to deal with mechanized voices that masquerade as a company’s customer service manager. We accommodate to digital attendants each time we book a train, order a book from Amazon, or find the nearest restaurant. Yet breakdowns in conversational timing and lack of meaningful dialogue can spark the equivalent of technological road rage. Real conversations do not take place with a machine that does not care.
Children should be seen and heard
Such everyday annoyances are the stuff of humorous Facebook posts for adults. For our children, however, science tells us that the lack of human conversations has more profound consequences. Hidden inside the natural back and forth of human conversations are subtle lessons about how to take turns, how to respond appropriately in language or gesture, and how to ask questions to bolster our learning.
Recent studies in developmental psychology are starting to unpack just how important these conversations are for young children. Mark Bornstein, a lead scientist at NIH and the current President-elect of the Society for Research in Child Development, finds that around the world, babies develop a back and forth non-language conversation by the time they are 11 months of age. Others find that turn-taking during “conversation” between infants and adults emerges at a mere 3 months. The kinds of back and forth interactions we have in these conversations lay the foundation for communication quality that predicts later language, social, and academic performance all the way through formal schooling.
Research in our lab and in many others confirms this. Scientists consistently find that the quality of conversation is central to later development and that it is itself build upon parents’ contingent responding to their children. When we respond to children in a timely way and in a way that extends the meaning of the conversation, they thrive. We took a close look at this quality of parent-child interactions at age 2 years and examined which aspects of these conversations predicted language learning one year later at age 3 years. The fluid and connected timing of the conversations (contingency) along with the parent and child’s joint use of symbols (such as pretending to drink from an invisible cup) and of routines (knowing what to do with a new book) were excellent predictors of later language in our tasks.
Two additional studies—one with video chats that preserve the quality of the responses and one with cell phones that breaks the parents’ contingent responding—confirm our findings. Sarah Roseberry (now at the University of Washington), the architect of the video chat research, discovered that children could learn language from video chats, but not from televised displays. Video chats include contingent adult responses that are missing in television.
Jessa Reed, now at Ohio State University, asked whether children could learn new words when parents were interrupted by cell phone calls in the middle of their parent-child conversations. If contingency and flow are key to learning, we might hypothesize that interruptions might disrupt the conversation and subsequent learning. That is precisely what happened: 2-year-olds failed to learn new words their mother was teaching them when their interaction was disrupted by a cell phone call.
As Sherry Turkle suggests, we must reinstate face-to-face conversation to reclaim the value of human empathy and connection. For adults, conversation fosters introspection and belongingness. We have let technology interfere with these basic human needs.
But her argument is so much deeper than it might at first appear. For our children, the lack of conversations has dire consequences. In conversation, our children flex the mental muscles that underpin interacting and learning from others. We owe our children a world rich in conversations. To give them that gift, we will need to look into their eyes and value their contribution to the dialogue. We must reclaim conversations with our children and celebrate the very core of what it means to be human.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor at the University of Delaware.