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A prime minister & a professor: True connecting in a digital age

Two messages in two media – video and text – by a prime minister and a professor got me, and I’m sure many others, thinking about the good, not-so-good and necessary connecting we human beings are doing on digital devices now, at both international and personal levels.

ModiZuckI haven’t heard a politician from any country speak of using social media the way India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did at Facebook headquarters today. Back in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did speak of using the Internet “to create norms of behavior among states [countries],” but Prime Minister Modi seems to be doing just that and then some, sending birthday wishes to fellow prime ministers in their own languages (Chinese and Hebrew) and hearing back from them in his own, Hindi, he told his audience at Facebook and – through livestreaming – in India and a lot of other countries.

Geopolitical but personal

This is a very humanizing kind of diplomacy – a kind so needed in our world now. Modi spoke of the world as a family and social media as a catalyst for keeping the family in touch with one another. It gives new meaning to the term “digital citizenship,” a meaning that might be meaningful for US parents and educators to bring into discussions at home and school. Though not without sectarian controversy (that followed him right to the Facebook campus), this is a politician with an approval rating possibly never reached by an American one: 87% by the end of his first year in office (see Wikipedia).

He was a “chaiwallah” as a little boy, a train station tea seller from a very poor, uneducated family, according to Foreign Policy, and he said at Facebook that social media helped him educate himself in a way that humans could never before learn about the wider world. He added that he first went on Facebook not to campaign but to find out what this social media thing was all about and now he sees it as a tool for “the government and the people to have daily bonding.” He said he urges government leaders around the world to try to get on social media because “it would benefit them greatly…. You’ll be able to have a good government if you have many channels of real-time information” from the people. So this politician sees social media as a tool for self-actualization, governance and diplomacy as well as politicking. [He also visited Apple, Google and Tesla Motors on his visit here to northern California, CNN reported.]

Global to micro-personal

Before that innovative geopolitical view of social media was shared across the world this morning, I read a thought-provoking commentary by MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle about social media at the most personal (and probably the most challenging) level.

“Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself,” she writes in her latest book, excerpted in today’s New York Times. And at this point in our and our technology’s evolutions, we need to have those conversations alone and with our devices turned off. To me, that’s unarguable. But she doesn’t stop there (the way so many proponents of “digital sabbaths” do).

TurklebookTurkle seems to have gotten more positive and prescriptive since her last commentary I read in the Times (and criticized here), and this is information actually useable for parents. Instead of just telling our children to shut it down, we can tell them why it’s good to slow down and do one thing at a time: because “in every domain of life, it will increase [their] performance and decrease stress.” [We could “think of unitasking as the next big thing,” she suggested.]

How to help our children (& ourselves!)

Another prescription for digital age anxiety: solitude, the ability to be alone (digitally as well as physically). Why? “If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be.”

Parents, think about how to help a child understand that: If we really want to be a friend, be present for someone and really see and hear them as a human being, we need to start with ourselves – extend that kindness to ourselves. If we want to have satisfying, meaningful conversations or connections with our friends, we need to connect with ourselves too. That’s not just connecting with our thoughts but getting still enough to notice those thoughts, what they’re saying about us and whether we choose to accept them as true and useful or not. We can consciously help our children develop their self-knowledge and the “inner guidance system” that protects and supports their social experiences online and offline. We can practice this with ourselves and them: being able to just be with ourselves in order to just be with others, not with our labels of them or with what we want them to be to us.

We’ve heard these suggestions before, but they bear repeating: “We can choose not to carry our phones all the time. We can park our phones in a room and go to them every hour or two while we work on other things or talk to other people. We can carve out spaces at home or work that are device-free, sacred spaces for … conversation and solitude.”

As Digital Citizenship Week 2015 approaches (Oct. 18-24), consider talking with kids about the geopolitical as well as the interpersonal parts of citizenship in their networked world – and how we need to use social media with care, for our own, each other’s and the planet’s sakes.

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