Those who haven't spent much time "IRL" with their kids lately will recognize their own households in the pages of "The Big Disconnect." In Real Life, a state now so exotic that it needs its own identity tag, refers to the way families used to interact, before we started to text each other from one room to the next. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist alarmed by the wired way we live now, wants us to reclaim the immemorial rhythms of the hearth and shield our children from the excesses of the digital age.
The author draws on her own psychology practice and interviews with kids, parents and experts to argue, persuasively, that tech is rewiring human relations. While focusing on child development, she registers the irony of hand-wringing by adults who themselves Facebook compulsively and text while breastfeeding. From infancy to retirement, tech now trespasses on the most intimate recesses of our lives.
But an important distinction exists between the post-Internet generation and their elders, who have known something other than the one-click gratification of Google. The author believes that those who once visited libraries or waited days by the kitchen phone for a girl to call developed resilience, and their young brains were afforded gentle hours of creative meandering. As adults, their tolerance of "boredom"—an absence of hyper-stimulation and instant satisfaction—contributed to happiness and productivity.
Today, even infancy is wired. At a time of unparalleled brain growth, the baby's nursery is intruded upon by gadgets. Toddlers are handed iPads to quiet them, even while research tells us, according to Ms. Steiner-Adair, that "engaging with the screen activity may itself be rerouting brain development" and undermining "neural connections your child needs to develop reading, writing, and higher-level thinking later."
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Ms. Steiner-Adair reports, 30% of America's kids under the age of 3 have televisions in their rooms. Another survey shows that a third of Gen-Y mothers allow their 2-year-olds to play with smartphones. The younger the parent, the earlier kids are plugging in. Tech takes precious time away from lessons in self-regulation, Ms. Steiner-Adair believes. It is through practice in real life, she says, that you develop "the capacity to soothe yourself and calm yourself down, to deal with impulsivity, tolerate frustration, work through boredom to creativity."
Ironically, the technology that allows parents to work from home can disrupt the very bonding and modeling of behavior that the author believes are essential to brain health. The TV and house phone were inventions that we could walk away from, but today we are attached to our devices as if they were prosthetic extensions of our hearts and minds. One result is that some 4-year-olds can download apps before they can put on their own shoes. Technology has gained a "de facto coparenting role," the author notes.
By middle school, children's social lives have been amped up by Facebook and texting. Without the "nuanced sensory feedback" of face-to-face intercourse, misunderstandings escalate and social skills go missing. The halting give-and-take of adolescent courtship, for example, is distorted. By their earliest teens, most children, Ms. Steiner-Adair says, have been steeped in the "chaos and moral indifference of the cyber culture," treacherous territory for those whose judgment isn't yet fully developed.
Despite the considerable social good it can foster, Facebook also encourages "impulsive sharing" and self-promotion that for high-schoolers often takes the form of pouty posing or drunken oversharing. Responses are unfiltered, and young and old alike are robbed of the healing calm of distance, the time it would take to write a note or go for a walk and cool off.
Technology is also entwined with sexuality as never before. Many tween boys have had their first sexual encounters with online porn, while girls assess their attractiveness based on Instagram self-portraits. This is "the first generation," says Ms. Steiner-Adair, "to grow up in a culture where being sexually intimate is understood to be disconnected from the context of a relationship." Facebook evolved from a collegiate "hotness" rating tool and is now a morally agnostic medium linked to a "lean in" role model. But for today's young woman, that boy she is stressed about is never out of sight or out of mind and is relentlessly present on the laptop she turns on to do homework or on the phone in her handbag. There is rarely an escape from image-management. Ms. Steiner-Adair says that "recent reports on emerging patterns of depression and loneliness among heavy tech users suggest some teens spend upward of half the day—eleven hours—tending their Facebook profiles."
Families, too, suffer from "relational fatigue," thanks to ceaseless sharing. Parents know where their children are and what they are doing at every minute (except when kids turn off their phones to avoid parental stalking). Teen girls feel guilty if they haven't updated friends every half-hour. We are "imprisoned" by the demands of managing peers and relatives, receiving and sending an unbroken barrage of messages for no reason other than our addiction to constant contact. It is exhausting.
Texting and Facebook can be valuable tools, the author admits, but they don't necessarily foster humanity. She cites an analysis of 72 studies that included nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009. It shows a "sharp decline in the empathy trait." It isn't just that it is easier to be cruel via device; it also seems that some children may not be learning how to read IRL responses as humans had for millennia.
Is Ms. Steiner-Adair's portrait of modern life, disrupted and impoverished by invasive technology, a compelling one? She isn't the first social observer to be skeptical of today's tech obsessions. Sherry Turkle, in "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other" (2012), sounded some of Ms. Steiner-Adair's themes. Technology's defenders, in turn, reply that the naysayers are overreacting and would never trade their own electronic devices for the "real life" of yesteryear. And besides, aren't tech-fluent kids with little patience for plodding methods at an advantage in today's economy? Certainly they are adept multitaskers whose time on computers is neurologically and psychologically "action packed"—entirely in keeping with our culture and the demands that adult life will put on them.
But Ms. Steiner-Adair makes a point of conceding that technology is an ever more inevitable component in schools, the workplace and family life and a font of wondrous opportunity. She simply wants parents to provide a model for "safe and civil" interaction with tech, while not allowing "new apps" to "obliterate old truths."
The author believes that the "sustainable family recognizes the pervasive presence of tech in today's world" but develops a mindful approach to limit it. She calls for old-fashioned remedies—ask the girl out in person, play board games now and then. Solo, family and peer play, she believes, nurtures "curiosity, grit, and zest and a whole host of social and emotional learning." Even in a tech-driven world, she says, unplugged activities are linked not only to mental health and civility but also to "success in school and life"—that is to say, to success in real life.—Ms. Finnerty is a writer in
A version of this article appeared August 31, 2013, on page C9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Touchscreen Toddlers and Instagram Teens.