The digital revolution favours peer orientation, and that’s a problem. This is a conclusion from Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Vancouver psychologist.
Neufeld’s concern is a bit different from many one hears. It’s the peer part that he sees as a key element for what is going wrong.
He is starting from the base that “attachment” is the key psychological mechanism. Healthy development depends on this attachment being inter-generational, providing the basis for developing of a positive adult identity.
Access to the technology has rapidly expanded to the point that nearly all adolescents are connected. The way they use the technology is for linking with others—peer connections. Adolescents don’t go online so much for information as for attachment, many being attached electronically for most of their waking hours, seeking the assurance that they belong.
Neufeld quotes the journal Pediatrics saying “a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones.” This online relationship is with their peers, not their parents or other adults. As a psychologist, he identifies that “parenting is not a set of skills and behaviors, but above all is a relationship.” That relationship does not grow if the relationships are nearly entirely with peers.
This is not a phenomenon only in the rich societies where the technology has become ubiquitous. A study of the uses of computers in Paraguay found that what students did with the netbook-type computers they were given was to play games, watch video and gossip with friends. The project was based on an assumption that education would be the primary use.
Neufeld speculates on a “what if”?
“I often wonder what would have happened if the digital revolution had occurred before peer orientation took hold, but after increasing mobility, job scarcity and high divorce rates had separated us from those we love. Without peer orientation perhaps a culture would have evolved to digitally connect children to their parents and teachers, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. Parents may be reading bedtime stories to their children through these digital tools when away from home; teachers and students creating a context of connection to facilitate learning; grandparents connecting with their grandchildren when far away.”
Of course, some of that does happen for some children, but these are not the dominant online relationships.
Dr. Neufeld is co-author with Dr. Gabor Mate of the book, Hold on to Your Kids.