Being Human in 2021

Diana Graber
January 5, 2021

“In this age of algorithms and bots, learning how to be human is more challenging than ever. Text messages are curt, Siri doesn’t expect a thank you, and autoresponders can’t detect when the sender needs a kind word or a hug. To raise kids who will wield technology with empathy, understanding, thoughtfulness, compassion—and all the other age-old human capacities that make life worth living—we must sow the seeds of each of these qualities offline, especially when kids are young. That way, as they get older and smarter, they’ll have these essential human qualities to draw upon and use where they are really needed, in the online world. Perhaps they’ll also remember to put down their devices now and then and collect the rewards of offline life, like real hugs, genuine smiles, and hearty high fives.”

When I wrote these words just a couple years ago for my book, “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology,” little did I know that one day soon COVID-19 would make it nearly impossible to collect “real hugs, genuine smiles, and hearty high fives.” And just think of all the other rewards of real life this pandemic is robbing us of:

  • Kids at home are missing opportunities to socialize with friends at school and after school.
  • Without classrooms to hang out in, kids and teachers are missing the chance to develop rich personal relationships.
  • Grandparents are missing grandkids, and families everywhere are missing distant family and friends.
  • With faces hidden behind masks, children are missing the opportunity to learn how to read facial expressions that help them detect another’s feelings.
  • We’re all missing the euphoria that comes from being in a crowd at a concert, in a church, at an amusement park, at a game cheering for our favorite team, or even a game cheering for a child’s soccer team.
  • And we’re really missing someone’s warm hand on our shoulder telling us it is going to be okay.

When things like these are missing, we also lose the chance for children to develop the important social-emotional skills they learn from all of the above. These are skills they will need when they start engaging with faceless others online, or observe someone being cyber bullied, or wonder how to deflect a request for something inappropriate online.

But lamenting what’s missing gets in the way of doing what we can to help kids develop the human capacities they will need when this horrible pandemic is over. So, let’s consider how we can nurture humanity in the meantime.

Three Things We Can Do

Make the most of face-to-face technologies. Imagine a world with coronavirus but without technology. That would be a silent and lonely world for sure. Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Meet, and more are lifesavers today. Each make it easy, and usually free, to connect with friends and loved ones. So even if you have young ones at home, put them on a lap and Skype with Grandma. Or put the grandparents on Zoom and let them “be in the room” when young ones are playing. Research shows that these technologies are a positive use of technology even for the very youngest of kids. Each lets them learn how to read faces in an otherwise masked-up world.

Be curious what your kids ARE doing on their screens. Are they playing Among Us with their friends? If so, ask them to show you how it’s played. Are they checking out the newest challenge on TikTok? Ask them to explain it to you and then talk about it. They’ll usually appreciate a parent’s open curiosity in their hobbies and interests. There is a lot going on in their online worlds, and you will likely never know about any of it unless you ask.

Go outside. Okay, full disclosure, I live in California, so this is easier for me than for most. But still, going outside, without devices, provides an important escape and respite from the always-on, anxiety-riddled world being delivered to us via our devices. Remember, as you toggle through your news app, your teen is likely getting the same news (yeah, THAT news) on their apps too—TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and others are full of information, videos, memes and more about current events. Kids need a break from all this. Please help them get it.

These are strange times, and a truly unique new year is upon us. Let’s start it by being grateful to technology! It has enabled us to educate our kids (as well as possible) and stay connected with loved ones.

We’ll get through this, together, as humans always do.

Written by

Diana Graber

Diana Graber, author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology (www.raisinghumansinadigitalworld.com),” is the founder of Cyberwise (www.cyberwise.org) and Cyber Civics (www.cybercivics.com), two sites dedicated to improving the digital literacy skills of adults and children.