by Robert C. Whitaker, MD, MPH
Delivered at the Parent Association Meeting of the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, April 24, 2019

Kara Swisher, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times who writes about technology, noted in a recent column that:

“[Social media], the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world and it continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways…. In short, stop the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter world — we want to get off. Obviously that is an impossible request and one that does not address the root cause of the problem, which is that humanity can be deeply inhumane. But that tendency has been made worse by tech in ways that were not anticipated by those who built it.”

In an August 2018 column in the Times she called social media giants:  

digital arms dealers of the modern age [who had] weaponized pretty much everything that could be weaponized. They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another.”

As a parent, pediatrician, and public health scientist, I am both troubled and reassured by Swisher’s claims. What troubles and reassures me is the same thing—the truth. After all, a century ago it was Rudolf Steiner’s truth after WWI that humanity can be deeply inhumane. The Waldorf system of education is a humane system of education that was created in response to the inhumanity of war.

“The smartphone, a quintessential symbol of how digital technology has transformed our world, has called us to a challenge of deep collective creativity. We must now manage digital technology use in our lives and help our children to do so.”

Our signature strengths as a species are to create, cooperate, and affiliate. Digital technology, your smartphone, and the platform on which it operates—the internet—have arisen out of those signature strengths and reassert the beautiful truth about our gifts as a species.

We can do something that probably no other mammals can do. At once, we can remember the past, live in the present, and imagine the future. In the present we are very good at creating solutions to problems we have experienced in the past. We are not so good at anticipating the future consequences of our solutions. This failure to anticipate the downside is a persistent theme in the history of technology. Digital technology is helping us, but it is hurting us in ways we had not anticipated.

The smartphone, a quintessential symbol of how digital technology has transformed our world, has called us to a challenge of deep collective creativity. We must now manage digital technology use in our lives and help our children to do so. To ignore that creative challenge is not a good idea. I will not try to tell you what to think about this problem, but I will share some ideas about how to think about the problem. I have a peaceful uncertainty about digital technology. I spend most of everyday on the computer—reading, writing, and communicating; and the majority of the communication is with people who do not live in my city. I do not have cable TV or a microwave oven. I read a lot of books, and I write letters and use stamps. My uncertainty is about how to answer these questions about digital technology: For what purpose and at what time should I employ it?

It takes a lot of effort and intention to remain uncertain about digital technology and to become peaceful about not knowing what is best while still trying to figure it out. Maybe you will join me in my peaceful uncertainty. I am not apathetic about technology. I can’t be, and I don’t think you should be.  

My comments will have three parts: the first part is about defining goals—what we are aiming for in life. Once goals are defined, it becomes easier to make decisions about using digital technology. The second part of my talk is about three considerations in addressing the use of technology. The final part is about you and your children. It is about stages of human development in the use of technology.    

“Waldorf education does better than any system of education I know of to prepare children to live lives of purpose and meaning in accordance with their unique abilities. As co-participants in that education, I think it is very important for us to ask ourselves what the use of digital technology might be doing to enhance or diminish flourishing.”   

I. What are we aiming for?

Parents want to optimize their children’s development. We should want to optimize our own development, and that is something we are in charge of. Most of you are probably wondering how digital technology use should fit into the goal of optimizing your children’s development. However, I would encourage you to also think about how digital technology use optimizes your own development. What exactly are we trying to optimize?

I would like to suggest that we should be trying to optimize the same thing in our children’s development and in our own development. We should be aiming to flourish.

Even to a group of Waldorf parents, the term flourishing might have a “new age” feel. However, flourishing is the subject of a large body of scholarship in the social sciences. Although the precise definition is still debated by scholars, many agree that to flourish is this: to live a life of meaning and purpose in accordance with one’s unique abilities.

I know of only one system of education that promotes flourishing. That is the Waldorf system of education. Oddly enough, few involved in Waldorf education seem to ever use the term flourishing. Yet, Waldorf education does better than any system of education I know of to prepare children to live lives of purpose and meaning in accordance with their unique abilities. As co-participants in that education, I think it is very important for us to ask ourselves what the use of digital technology might be doing to enhance or diminish flourishing.    

Below is a simple framework that might guide thinking about digital technology use.

I believe that a Waldorf education promotes flourishing by increasing relational awareness. As with flourishing, there is also a large body of empirical work in both the social and biological sciences on the subject of relational awareness. Interestingly, not much has been written about how they are related.

What do I mean by relational awareness? This refers to an awareness and an acceptance of the four key relations in which humans engage—relationship to one’s self, to others, to the natural world, and to God. For those who are atheistic, polytheistic, or agnostic, there are other terms, aside from God, that might be more meaningful descriptors of that fourth relation. You might call it the divine, the transcendent, or the universe. Evidence suggests that from before birth children are developing relational awareness.

So this simple framework raises two questions for us to think about: First, how does relational awareness promote flourishing? Second, how does digital technology affect the development of relational awareness and thereby flourishing? I will only provide you some brief thoughts to engage your mind around those questions.

Research has shown that nearly all people facing the core existential limits of human existence—death, suffering, aloneness, and freedom—say that the central meaning and purpose in their lives arises from relationships. The idea that our relationships to others is at the core of meaning is not hard to imagine, nor is it hard to ponder how digital technology might be used to strengthen or weaken those relationships. Less often considered is the importance of our relationship with our self, particularly whether or not we come to know and accept ourselves. I suspect we spend very little time thinking about what digital technology use has to do with how we relate to ourselves. Further, there is our relationship to place with all its contextual elements of weather, the earth, the sky, and the energy of noise and light. Our relationship with a higher power is often about the meaning we must make of all those experiences that we keep in the category of the mysterious and ineffable. Does digital technology strengthen our relationship with the natural world? Does it help us embrace mystery? These questions are not entirely straightforward to answer, but I think they are important to ask.

Before leaving this topic of relational awareness and flourishing, I will focus a bit more on the relationship to self. Knowing and accepting of self, which I believe Waldorf education cultivates in an unparalleled and inspirational fashion, is at the center of human flourishing. It is the part of flourishing that says “in accordance with one’s unique abilities.” Waldorf graduates are often remarkably self-possessed, where self-possession is the union of knowing and accepting self. The graduates report that their self-possession arises, in part, from being “forced” to try everything. For example, through art, the students exercise their thinking, feeling, and physical will, against hindrance or resistance. In this work they discover and accept their unique abilities and limitations.

Aristotle called one’s unique abilities the daemon—the spirit given to one at birth, the best that is within us. The notions of flourishing and relational awareness have been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks who espoused the twin goals of knowing yourself and becoming what you are, which meant striving toward an excellence consistent with one’s innate potential.

We have the opportunity to ask ourselves how digital technology should become part of what Aristotle called the highest good achieved by human action, which he called “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” And what did he mean by virtue? It was about finding the middle ground between excess and deficiency—a useful idea when it comes to addressing the use of digital technology. How can we use the smartphone with virtue? Does digital technology have the capacity to make us closer to each other? Absolutely. Does it have the capacity to separate us from one another? Absolutely. Is there a well-defined virtuous use of the smartphone, for example, that is the quintessential “right thing at the right time?” Defining the virtuous use of digital technology is a creative exercise that we should undertake.  

“Digital technology is a bit like the sun. It is here to stay. But is the sun good for children? Does the sun give children skin cancer or build strong bones? It does both.”

II. Three considerations in using digital technology

A. Change-grief-nostalgia

In almost every application of digital technology, the technology is replacing something else. One saying of the digital age is “Did you know there is an app for that?” We must remember that this “app” is replacing something that may have been part of how we created meaning and purpose, especially where relationships were concerned. For example, there are now birthday evites but no stamped invitations. We can see who is coming to the party before it happens, but when we arrive, there is no joy in the surprise of seeing who is there.

I believe that unrecognized and ongoing grief contributes to the endemic sadness and anxiety in modern society. Digital technology use has become so widespread so quickly that we have not had a chance to grieve the loss of what that technology has replaced. When technology replaces something, we may have lost meaning that we did not recognize until that thing was replaced by something that is clever and more efficient but which has little meaning. I think we are afraid to acknowledge that we are sad about losing what used to be. Perhaps the challenge for us is to acknowledge our grief.

In his book “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,” the poet David Whyte writes about the word nostalgia. His writing reminds me of our nostalgia for the “that” which was replaced by the “app.” In reading this passage, hold in your mind the meaning we may have had in the act of placing a beautiful stamp on an invitation or gently folding a well-used map with fragile creases. Whyte writes:

“Nostalgia tells us we are in the presence of imminent revelation…. Something we thought we understood but that now we are about to fully understand, something we already lived but did not FULLY live, issuing not from our future but from something already experienced: something that was important, but something to which we did not grant importance enough, something now wanting to be lived again, at a depth to which it first invited us but which we originally refused. Nostalgia is not an immersion in the past, nostalgia is the first annunciation that the past as we know it is coming to an end.”

B. Power-moderation-intention

It is fashionable to protest digital technology by either dismissing its importance or defiantly trying to protect children from what turns out might be exaggerated harms. Digital technology is a bit like the sun. It is here to stay. But is the sun good for children? Does the sun give children skin cancer or build strong bones? It does both. The sign that technology is powerful is that people engage with it in either an “all-in” or “all-out” mode. Most are “all-in.” This is because people cannot deal easily with the challenge, effort, and intention required to use something powerful in moderation. Digital technology, like the sun, should not and cannot be avoided. It should also not be looked at directly for a long time. After all, one does not want rickets or blindness.  

Writing in 350 BC Aristotle said the following about virtue:

‘‘Both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.’’ (p. 38)

He said virtue was to aim for the intermediate—what I would call moderation. Imagine what Aristotle would say today about digital technology. Perhaps this:

“Using digital technology at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best. This is the characteristic of virtue when using digital technology.’’

That is hard work. This technology and its power can give us control over the world but that control can be illusory, and the technology can quickly control us. The technology can connect us, but it can separate us. It can focus our attention but also hold our attention too tightly and keep it from shifting. For what purpose and at what time should I employ digital technology?

C. Foundations-timing

In general, digital technology cannot build foundations. It can decorate, trim, beautify, enhance, and quicken. Most importantly, it cannot build the foundations of relationships because it cannot build relational trust and safety. Without trust and safety, we do not become vulnerable; and without expressing our vulnerability, we do not approach, affiliate, or cooperate with one another. If we cannot do that, we will not survive as a species. Digital technology cannot build the skills children need to establish trust and safety. It cannot build the skills of relational awareness. I believe technology can powerfully enhance and accelerate relational awareness, but it is not foundational. Too much digital technology too early and for the wrong things will have children building relationships on sand and not stone. Nor can digital technology build the foundation for learning because we ultimately learn best from those we love and that love is based on trust and safety. Trust and safety is what allows us to confess our ignorance, and that can be a starting point for learning.

“Birth to 6 is about protection, 7 to 13 is about modeling, 14 to 17 is about supervision and after 18+ is about autonomy.”

III. Developmental stages with technology

I have not yet decided whether these stages are a good concept or how best to label the adult’s role at each stage of child and youth development. It is an open question to me how to operationalize adult roles at each stage. In the spirit of Rudolf Steiner, I have used seven- year blocks. I encourage you to think, with nostalgia, about the developmental stages of bike riding. At the same time, we are talking about using a digital technology device like a smartphone or tablet.

Birth to 6 is about protection: This is the period of the greatest parental sacrifice of non-doing. The big issue is not about whether your child should use these devices at this age. I don’t think children should at all. The more serious question to me is whether you are looking at your screen instead of your child. The list of precious and foundational developmental processes ongoing at this age is staggering: sustained attention, inhibition, imagination, narrative, empathy, intuition, and the integrated activity of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. We simply have no idea whether anything that comes off a screen is an adequate substitute for you in this process. We also have no idea about the implications for your child of you being held hostage by your screen. It is probably best for you to face your child, not your screen. In 2019 that is a huge parental sacrifice. It may even cost you at your job, which is now often a 24/7 screen-facing endeavor owing to digital technology.

7 to 13 is about modeling: This may be harder than the sacrifice of your non-doing from birth up to age seven. This is about doing technology with intention. I think modeling is essential. Children could not easily learn to ride a bike at age seven or drive at age 16 without being an observer of these activities for many years. The big question is what constitutes virtue or Aristotle’s intermediate position with our own use of technology.

14 to 17 is about supervision: At some point you take off the training wheels on the bike, but you stay close—very close. There are falls and tears and maybe some giving up for a while. You should consider having very explicit conversations at this age about how digital technology use is interfering with or enhancing relationships—about relational awareness. Maybe have conversations about whether your child is establishing social norms with their peers or following the norms of others. Whose digital technology virtue is the norm?  

At some point, the bike will be ridden on city streets to visit a friend. There will be yellow lights, city busses, and even inattentive texting drivers. Before you allow such a trip, you will rightly ask your child their intentions in riding their bike to that place, at that time, and for that reason. If you say yes, you will ask your child to stay aware while riding—of her body, of her thoughts, of her emotions, of others, and of her surroundings. You should not have that conversation with your child by texting. The ride on the internet is full of city buses and drunk drivers. Children need your supervision.

In this period, you may need to remind your child that digital technology does not work well at any age to build foundations—build your weekend plans with your friends in face-to-face interactions, lightly refine them, if needed, by texting. Solve technical problems with technology but do not use technology to solve social problems. Remind your child that all technical problems have a social problem hiding inside them or have a social problem created by the technical solution—just ask John Rockefeller or Mark Zuckerberg.

After 18+ is about autonomy: When our children are adults we often teach them by expressing our regrets as adults about what we did wrong when we got our freedoms. This is the age of heavy mistakes which may have life-long negative consequences and from which you cannot protect your child. It is scary. They are either going to ride their bike with a helmet or not. They may get brain injured. Their social media profile may keep them from getting a job. No amount of your “helicoptering” will matter. Continue to remind them of how you are evolving with your own technology use and how you are trying to use technology with virtue. It is their decision about whether to incorporate your virtue.

IV. An opportunity

We cannot easily solve the challenge of how to integrate the reality of digital technology into our children’s lives. But if we frame the challenge of technology use around the goals of relational awareness and flourishing, we can make some progress.

More technology rarely solves the social problems technology creates. The problems of digital technology are social problems. To solve them requires the art of conversation and inquiry, where inquiry is about identifying what feels true to us as a family or a community. This is a creative act that requires meeting resistance with both the thinking and the feeling will. It is not just an activity for adults. It must involve children too. After all, it is about them too.

All of this is a great deal of hard work. It is sort of like developing a dress code. It sounds easy until you start to operationalize it. Then you realize you are up against something powerful because a dress code deals with culture and social norms, about how we relate to everything—ourselves, one another, our environment, and even God. In fact, this process of deciding how children should use digital technology (or for that matter, dress) makes us aware of our relationships. You are forced into the work of relational awareness. This relational awareness is really the spiritual work of a Waldorf education out of which our children will flourish.

We can discover in this creative process of dialogue and inquiry how to build lives of meaning and purpose by managing something of potential beauty—digital technology—that itself arises from our fundamental nature to create, cooperate, and affiliate. The Waldorf system is the perfect incubator for this creative activity. It is a meaningful activity, for your family and for our community as a whole, to figure out how to integrate the reality of digital technology into our children’s lives.

About the author: Bob Whitaker is a pediatrician who also has a master’s degree in public health. His professional career has involved providing clinical care, teaching pediatrics and public health, and conducting research on the life course development of child health and well-being. He currently works as the Director of Research and Research Education at the Columbia–Bassett Program of the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Bassett Medical Center. He is also affiliated with the Bassett Research Institute at the Bassett Medical Center. Prior to his current position, he taught epidemiology for 10 years in the College of Public Health at Temple University. He is the father of Louella, who is now in 6th grade at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, and the wife of Hillary Burdette, who now teaches 8th grade there.

Contact: robert.whitaker@bassett.org

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Mark Hulbert and Nicole Rodriguez for their contributions to some of the ideas contained in this talk, and to Allison N. Herman for her technical assistance.

References:

  • For reviews of the topic of human flourishing:
    • Ryff, C. D. (2014). Psychological well-being revisited: Advances in the science and practice of eudaimonia. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 83(1), 10-28. doi:10.1159/000353263
    • Ryff, C. D. (2018). Well-being with soul: Science in pursuit of human potential. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 242-248. doi:10.1177/1745691617699836
    • Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2008). Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 13-39. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9019-0
  • For a detailed discussion of the origins of the concept of relational awareness:
    • Hay, D., & Nye, R. (1998). The Spirit of the Child. London: Harper Collins.
    • Nye, R. (2009).Children’s Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters. London: Church House Publishing.
    • Nye, R. (1998). Psychological perspectives on children’s spirituality. Available at http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/11177/. University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England.
    • Eaude, T. (2009). Happiness, emotional well‐being and mental health – what has children’s spirituality to offer? International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 14(3), 185-196. doi:10.1080/13644360903086455