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Kids, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence

LAKSHMI on April 16, 2015

Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define Emotional Intelligence (EI) as the “ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships."  How has technology impacted EI, especially among digital natives?

Emotional kids using technology

Daniel Goleman, author of several books on the subject, says that the expanding hours spent alone with gadgets and digital tools could lower EI due to shrinkages in the time young people spend in face-to-face interactions. Quite rightly, as technologies divert our attention away from a realistic present, there exists the danger of disconnect that decreases EI.    But can the effect be quantified, or at least qualified? Or is it hokum? EI is measured by the dimensions of Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Social Skills.  How does technology impact each of these dimensions?

Going by the Wikipedia definition of Self-Awareness as the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals, the digital age does indeed have a sizeable impact on self awareness. Nora Young from CBC Spark believes that digitization and the proliferation of data is creating a new kind of self awareness among the digital natives. The action of posting a thought on to Twitter, Facebook, or some other of the myriad social networks available, could, depending on its reception by peers, cause an ego boost (bordering narcissism) or slump, more likely the latter. In a survey of 298 users of social media, 50 percent said social media made their lives and their self-esteem worse.

On one hand, many youngsters are ignorant of the privacy intrusions in their digital presence, and of permanence of digital data, making them rash in posting stuff that might backfire at a later date, either on a personal level or on their employability. On the other hand, the flexibility of new digital tools undoubtedly provides students with a platform for creativity which could have a large positive impact on self awareness.

Self-regulation, the ability to stay focused and alert, is probably the one dimension of EI that is affected most by technology. Technology-induced distractions are a common complaint among parents and teachers. Ability to focus is very closely related to the emotional health of the individual, as was shown in a longitudinal study conducted with over 1,000 children in New Zealand. As Goleman aptly says, “What we need to do is be sure that the current generation of children has the attentional capacities that other generations had naturally before the distractions of digital devices. It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.”

The role of technology in motivation is one area that has elicited much controversy.  Many teachers bemoan the decrease in the motivation in the classroom due to the effect of fast paced video games and instant information at their fingertips.  However, there are others who believe that the digital revolution can indeed motivate students, albeit in ways hitherto unknown to the digital immigrants. Many teachers have also found noticeable increase in the level of engagement students exhibited with their projects when they were encouraged to use digital media. The appeal of digital media lies in the idea of sharing their work with a wide variety of people from all over the world through the Internet. In another example, in the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS), which is conducted online, students enjoyed taking the exam more via the computer and answered more questions rather than guessing randomly or simply quitting, which they would have done in a paper-pencil exam.

Empathy is another area of EI that could be affected by technology. Empathy is a trait that requires a human touch, face-to-face interactions and communication through verbal as well as non-verbal cues. E-communication tools such as chat, messaging and social networking websites, while offering the possibility of breaking free of geographic confines, pose a challenge to developing empathetic relationships with another human being. Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a co-author of “The Dragonfly Effect,” analyzed 72 studies performed on nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009 and show a sharp decline in the empathy trait over the last 10 years.

The major culprit in the fall of empathy is the desensitization to shocking images and events that are perpetrated by all forms of media, Internet included. The gruesome videos online, not only feed grim curiosity but also remove the element of horror. Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that the self-reported empathy of college students has declined since 1980, with a steep drop in the past decade. This, understandably, coincided with the rise of students’ self-reported narcissism reported by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. Konrath believes that the increase in social isolation, has led to the drop in empathy.

The digital natives socialize in a way that is vastly different from their parents - over 10,000 hours playing video games, over 200,000 emails and instant messages sent and received; over 10,000 hours talking on digital cell phones – all before they leave for college. Yet, they are apparently less “connected” than their digital immigrant parents. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle states that social media, and technology are actually causing us to disconnect. A similar refrain is played by Stephen March as “we are more connected, yet we feel less connected” in, as Goleman calls it, “a kind of cauterized life.”  Indeed many of us are no longer “pizzled” at social gathering when our conversation partner suddenly ignores us in favour of a smart tool.

Thus it seems that technology does not bode particularly well for Emotional Intelligence.  That however, does not demonize technology. As an intelligent species, we have made technology cater to our “intelligence”; as emotional beings, how difficult could it be to make it serve our emotional quotient as well?

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