The Silent Generation – Old Label, New Problems?

[Image - Damian Zaleski]
Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Is our over-use of technology creating a new Silent Generation?

The original Silent Generation were so named because they focused on careers and away from trying to improve social problems. However, a new ‘Silent Generation’ may have arrived, consumed by screens and struggling to communicate with the most important people in their lives.

An increasing number of studies are being done surrounding our extensive use of technology and – as a generation who have never known a time without constant exposure to it begin to grow – we are starting to see the effects.

“A staggering 77% of 7 – 14 year olds admitted to running out of things to talk about when conversing with family at the table.” First News 

What is causing this drop in the ability to simply chat? If we put some of the results of the studies together, a picture begins to form, showing why our children are running out of conversation and the role of technology in the decline.

77% is a really worrying statistic when we take into account that other studies suggest the only time parents and children really spend together on a regular basis is dinner times, and even that is only for around 40 minutes a day. It seems shocking that children would be unable to maintain conversation for a little over half an hour!

Are you glued to a screen?

A third of 5 – 15 year olds are regularly bringing tech devices to the dinner table, however modern day teenagers are famous for multi-tasking so it’s ok, right? Wrong. Professor Clifford Nass carried out new research which showed very clearly that media multitaskers are failing to concentrate on anything at all. The heavier the media multitasking was, the more they underperformed in every task.

The human brain is not able to process more than one string of information at a time, so multitaskers are not superhuman – they are just performing all the tasks they are doing poorly. So those who bring tech devices to the table – yes, parents as well – are going to struggle to maintain conversation because they are attempting the impossible.

New evidence on brain changes

Susan Greenfield, a top neuroscientist, has explained that research confirms that higher levels of technology-use when we’re younger cause differences in the way the brain develops, including a short attention span and poor social skills.

“There is a correlation between the way that an infant brain works, needing constant reassurance and stimulation, and the centres of the brain engaged by technology, by bright lights, buzzing sounds and instant gratification.” 

She believes this is causing the brain to remain – or even regress – back to an infant state. If our brains are losing the ability to focus for longer periods of time, then this is very likely to have a direct impact on our conversation – which needs to concentrate on one area before careening over to the next.

What can we do to help?

The good news is that parents can do lots to help their children improve the art of conversation!

– Ban technology at the table. This doesn’t just apply to the children, it’s crucial that you put the technology away at the dinner table too, whether that be a kindle or a phone.

– Have fun before dinner! Make sure your children aren’t just coming home and staring at the computer or television. Doing real activities or engaging in actual play will instantly give them something to talk about as well as helping them develop interests.

– Set positive limits. A study by Connecticut College (2013) found a greater restriction of technology usage in youth correlated with high social skills by university age. Look positively on the limits you set for your children, it is your responsibility as a parent to monitor how often they stare at screens and keep it up. You are doing it to keep them healthy and help them develop.

– Get friends over so they can chat in person. Did you know that only around 7% of what we understand through talking is through verbal communication, 38% of the information we process is down to tone of voice and 55% is body language. Your children are learning which tone of voice and body language to use, as well as what it means when other people use them – they cannot get this from social media. Switch off the computer and help them organise a proper get-together.

– Make sure you’re engaging. It’s easy in modern life to be distracted, you might be thinking about the housework that needs doing after dinner, a tricky business deal or even something you want to do later. Your children will struggle to talk to you if you don’t really seem interested. After all, body language and tone of voice is so important!

Before dinner, make a list of those things and put it on the kitchen side to deal with after. If you catch yourself thinking about those things then push them away – now is not the time. Make sure you are listening, maintaining some eye contact, asking questions back and giving your opinions on what your children are saying – if you engage with them, they’ll engage with you.

– Avoid trying to talk too much about school. Although it is important to show an interest in how your child’s school day went and what they did, it isn’t actually an easy topic to discuss. They are introduced to new knowledge, but the day is very much the same, day in and day out. There isn’t a lot in a school day which is conversation worthy, so avoid hugely open questions like ‘How was school?’ and try to ask a specific question such as ‘What was your favourite subject today?’ or ‘Who are you learning about in English right now? What do you think of them?’

Bear in mind that just as you may find your job stressful and need time to unwind and think of other things at home,  your child may feel the same about school – it doesn’t need to become a major focus in the small amount of time between being there and homework that they have to relax.

– Find common interests. Children and adults can have different interests, which can lead to long chats being tricky. If you both love football, then have a passionate chat about why Newcastle aren’t in a hurry to get a new manager, or if you both love music, then chat about your favourite artists.

– Get them involved in current affairs. Reading a newspaper aimed at children or watching a children’s news programme can trigger conversation. Current affairs can provoke strong opinions and feelings, provide a way to discuss really important topics and give them something to think about. Discussing these topics with you can help them to look at things in different ways, consider things they may not have thought about and develop their debate skills if you both disagree!