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Gopi Kallayil on The Internet to the Inner-Net

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Gopi Kallayil is a Wharton alum and Chief Evangelist, Brand Marketing at Google.  Before joining Google, Gopi was on the management team of two Silicon Valley venture funded startups and a consultant with McKinsey.  Gopi earned his Bachelors degree in electronics engineering from the National Institute of Technology in India and his Masters in Business Administration degrees from the Indian Institute of Management and from Wharton. He spoke with Stew about his new book, The Internet to the Inner-Net: Five Ways to Reset Your Connection and Live a Conscious Life.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation. Full podcast.


Stewart Friedman: How did you get here – to be at Google – the nexus of technology – also connected to eastern thought and practice?

Gopi Kallayil: Gopi KallayilIt is a long story, but the short version is just the hunger and thirst to see much of the world and experience the fullest of life on the planet.  One of the paths that many people choose, especially from that part of the world [India], is through education and professional life.  Starting from a modest family background, the search for education, business school, engineering school, and then professional expansion of career, eventually directing my sights at coming to the U.S. and to graduate school here and working in Silicon Valley, is what led to that journey and why I had Hong Kong as an in-between stop. I would say that was really the end goal in picking what I thought would be a great life experience both in terms of educational and professional growth and eventually working in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. I knew early on that the field of technology was where I wanted to pursue my career.

SF: I’d love to hear a bit more about how you knew that, but first let me ask what was it that you learned from your early family life? It’s something that’s important to us all but you write so clearly about that. What was it that your parents and your grandparents instilled in you that gave you this sense of being on a quest for useful knowledge that took you to far-off places? How did they teach you that?

GP: I don’t think they specifically taught me a technique, but I do know that they came from a set of limited opportunities and they had to step outside of that and be adventurous. In a classic tale that is retold in many families, my dad leaves his family lived in a rice-farming community and with no formal education, no qualifications, no real skillset, he goes on and builds his career in small towns and other places around India. Eventually, and this proves his street-smarts, he went on to speak nine languages, which he knew would connect him to people. I would say a skill I learned from him was how to connect to people.  That emotional intelligence or social intelligence is a huge driver of success. He took himself out of his comfort zone and to new environments.  You can learn and teach yourself skills and there is a large body of human knowledge out there that you can tap into and the more you learn and apply it, the more you thrive in whatever you choose to do. But along the way, I think one key piece of wisdom that I picked up was that so much of our life is based on interdependencies with other people and therefore the network of relationships you build is so crucial in how you do in whatever you choose to do professionally.

SF: He taught you a lot through his own example about how to learn and continue to grow your own capacity through meaningful connections to people who are different than you.

GP: Absolutely, and that’s why as much as the internet is a great technology to connect with information and objects and people, there is this whole network of relationships you have to establish with other people at a very human level. That was one of my biggest takeaways, that in the midst of all the technology, our social connections with other people are fundamental and that is never going to change.

SF: So you had an early grasp of the importance of technology, and you gravitated to that field. How did you know that was something that was going to be important for you and for the whole world in terms of the emergent digital age?

GP: I wish I could say that I had a very clear idea of how the world would look, but I can safely say that even five years ago, I didn’t have an idea of how things would evolve. When I was at Wharton, the internet was just beginning to get popular.

SF: You were Class of 1998, let me just clarify that.

GP: Last January, for example, we hit an inflection point where the number of mobile devices in the planet is estimated to have exceeded the number of human beings, 7.2 billion estimated mobile devices. The fact that we would now carry in our pockets a handheld technology the size of playing cards that allows you to listen to music, order milk, check in for your flights, and take photographs…I would never have predicted that. [phone connection to Gopi got cut off]

SF: How ironic, that we were talking about basic human connection and the unfathomable power of this technology, and then we lose that connection. It’s great to have you back.

GP: It’s a humbling reminder that anything can get disrupted. Part of what these practices teach you to do is to be unflappable through the course of it all and bounce right back.

SF: That’s what we’re trying to do right now. You were talking about how much has changed over the last five years and that the transformation of our lives in this digital age that is so rapidly advancing is something you couldn’t have predicted. How can that be, that even over such a short period of time things could change so far, so fast?

GP: It is remarkable, and I think it’s a culmination of several factors. The first and foremost is there is this amazing energy that is manifest among human beings in terms of being innovative and creative and looking at different problems and situations and how human beings work and play, and trying to come up with very, very creative solutions. One example of that is Uber, as the story goes, one was frustrated he couldn’t hail a cab in the rain and saw a lot of cars going by in the same direction and imagined what if I could somehow communicate with that person and say give me a ride, since you’re going in that direction, and I’ll make a small donation. Out of that, just trying to solve that simple problem of occupying an empty seat in a car going in your direction is what led to this amazing service called Uber that more and more people are using and you can see popping up in more cities. That’s what I mean by there is this tremendous energy of human beings looking at these kinds of things and saying let me come up with a creative way to solve the problem. But supporting all of that, there is this powerful, underlying platform, a collection of technologies, we broadly call it the internet, backed with many other pieces from giant databases of information that is available, open sharing of standards and information, many things I can point to, that was simply not available to us three, four years ago. I think we’re just taking advantage of all of those pieces and there is this creative outpouring of fantastic solutions to various problems that human beings are having.

SF: It’s such an exciting time, and yet, it’s for many people a frightening time. Your wonderful book The Internet to the Inner-Net helps to remind us and really provides some guidance about how to continue to stay human in the context of the digital revolution. What do you mean by the inner-net?

GP: It is a play on the word, one of the most iconic words of our times, the internet, which most people understand. It is this collection of technologies that connects us to all of the world’s information, other people, other objects. In the midst of all this, I wanted to send a message that the most important connection that all of us have is the one with ourselves. As much as we get enamored with these amazing technologies, there is one technology that you and I and all of our listeners get to use every single day. I playfully refer to it as a technology, but in some ways I think of it as the most sophisticated, most complex technology that is known to human kind, and that is right there inside of our body. It is an important technology, if you’ll allow me to call it so. I see this highly complicated, highly sophisticated brain.  We’ve barely even began to understand it yet all we have to do is watch a three- or four-year-old learn language and learn rules of grammar before being taught formal grammatical constricts. We just watch a toddler pick up language and that’s fascinating. How does the brain work?  You realize that you are dealing with sophisticated computers and neural networks that you can’t imagine. All of our life experience is filtered through this particular technology, the inner-net, to use that word. If it’s a piece of food you eat, or if you’re trying to process this conversation you and I are having, or listening to a piece of music and that is making an imprint on your mind and your emotions, all of that is filtered by this inner technology called the inner-net. Therefore, understanding it, nurturing it, having a relationship with it, knowing how to fully use it is an important predicate on the quality of our life.

SF: Absolutely, and of course that is the question for all of us.  We all need to have as deep and rich an understanding of who we are and our connections to the rest of the world. Tell us a little more about these five ways that you write about in The Internet to the Inner-Net that help people develop that kind of consciousness and capability in today’s digital environment. And by the way, I think the analogy that you use is a lovely one and helps to bring it home. The five ways, briefly, what are they?

GP: I thought of how do you incorporate these practices, because the way to find that moment to connect with these inner technologies is known to humankind and there have been elaborate practices and wisdom traditions that have been developed — meditation and various other practices.  But I kept asking myself how can I make it all work for me in a way that I will actually stay consistent with, and I came up with these five rituals that I practice on a regular basis.

The first one, I call it focus on the essential, meaning know clearly what is most important to you. If you know clearly what is important to you, you know what to say yes to and what to say no to. In living the kind of frenzied life that we live now with technology surrounding us, you’re constantly being pulled in different directions. If you know what is essential, you know how to say yes to a few things and say no to most other things. That’s one of the five rituals I tell people to be clear about it. In my own case, there are five essentials that I have come up with, and without getting into the details, I know what my top priorities are and I focus on them. I focus most of my energy and time on those.

The second ritual is as simple as do one thing at a time. It is incredible, the extent to which we go on in modern life thinking we’ll be the first generation in history to be able to do five things at the same time and be able to successfully execute. The thing with our brain is it’s extremely good when it’s focused on one task and if you ask it to do five things, it falls apart. Even with all of these people who have these debates about multitasking, and I ask this simple question: If you had to go for open-heart surgery, how would you feel if your surgeon said ‘hey, I’m also interested in baseball and the stock market, so in the operating room I’m going to have the TV turned on to two channels and simultaneously keep my eye on the game and the stock market.’ Would it make you uncomfortable? Where you see examples of peak performance, you don’t have multitasking. If you look at a musician, they never sit there rehearsing a piece while still watching something on TV. One thing at a time, simple idea, but it seems to help you get more things done.

The third thing I talk about is pick whatever it is that allows you connect to the inner-net, however broadly it is you may define it for yourself. It may be going out for a walk in the park or playing with your baby or reading poetry.  For me it’s yoga and meditation. I say commit to just one minute every single day, the idea being bring it out the lowest threshold you can’t say no to. Most people understand the wisdom behind it, but they’ll tell you they don’t have the time, they’re too busy or traveling. I stumbled across this idea of committing to just one minute a day when I told a good friend of mine at Google of my own struggle of finding a daily practice around yoga and meditation and he looked at me and said: “Gopi, why don’t you start with one breath?” Even if you’re trying to meditate for one full hour, it’s really 600 breaths strung together, it’s just one breath to get to the second and third. Since I’m a compulsive, neurotic overachiever, I said, “I can do better than that. I am going to go a whole minute!” That was the genesis of that.

SF: One minute a day to connect with what is inside of you.

GP: At least. I’m not saying stop at one minute, but at least one minute. The idea is there are 1,440 minute in a day, pick one to at least nurture some connection with your inner-net. What happens, at least in my case, now a week went by, two weeks went by, and for the first time in my life I could look back and say I did my practice every single day, even if it was for just a minute. But at least you feel you have integrity towards it. What came next was the delightful surprise, too, and that was on most days I would sit for a minute on the cushion meditating or commit myself to one minute of my yoga practice, coupled with some salutations, and the minute it’d go by, the next thing I knew my mind would be saying this is so wonderful, why rush to go do something else? What else can be more important? One minute can easily grow into five minutes and 10 minutes, so that was a way I could work over the hurdle.

The fourth ritual I talk about is among the 168 hours in your calendar, which we all feel gets hijacked by somebody else’s schedule, at least pick one non-negotiable slot every single week, once a week at the same time when you will commit to something that nurtures your inner-net. In my case, Monday at 5:30, I teach the Yoglers [yogis at Google]class and for nine years, if I am in Mountain View, I never missed a class.

SF: What is the last practice, just in brief?

The fifth one is even as I use social media to connect with thousands of other people, make sure you take time to friend yourself. Listen to the tweet from the heartbeat, listen to the chat request from your brain, and the status update from your body.

SF: How do you do that?

GP: By taking that one minute, at least to begin with, and finding whatever it is, that practice for inner-connection. For me, it is that time at the yoga mat or meditation or journaling or doing a gratitude practice, that allows me to step away from the noise and frenzy and the technology around me and refocus on what’s going on in my mind and my body and connect with my inner-net.

SF: It seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

GP: It is very simple, but it is very hard to practice. That’s why you call it a practice, it takes an entire lifetime and a lot of work and mastery, but enjoy the journey of the discovery. You’ll fall off the wagon and fail, I fail every day, but just getting back and trying again and just making one tiny step forward is itself part of the process, part of the joy of establishing that connection.

For more information about Gopi Kallayil and his new book, visit his web site Kallayil.com

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, and Fake Teams.


Family Relationships in the Digital Age – Catherine Steiner Adair

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist in private practice who is also a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and affiliated with Mclean Hospital, has written The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age  which examines the ways in which technology and media change how children learn and grow,
and shows parents how to balance the benefits of tech while reducing the potential risks they pose. She identifies ways to strengthen children’s social and emotional development to help them grow to be responsible, resilient, confident, and capable young adults.  She spoke with Stew Friedman about her current work which focuses on the impact of technology on the boundaries between work and the rest of life.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stewart Friedman: What prompted you to write The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age?

Catherine Steiner-Adair: Catherine Steiner AdairThe first thing that prompted me was my own struggles as a mom. My 30-year-old son was a very quick adopter to gaming and I didn’t know what to do or how to handle it. I had to set appropriate limits.  He ended up going to business school and he works in the technology industry.   He had a couple years in Wall Street and didn’t like that. He was able to combine his love of finance and technology, but it was rough going when he was gaming.

SF: What was rough about it?

CSA: I’m trained as a developmental psychologist.   And this was a long time ago when games were real games you could beat.  He was beating these games and I felt like it was so stimulating for him and really creative and clearly he was into this with real intellectual gusto.   But I also felt like something was going on between his brain and the computer that was very unlike anything I had seen but there was no research then.

SF: You were worried about that?

CSA: I was absolutely worried about it. This is a kid who would come to dinner politely, except when I said, “Stop playing.  Get off your computer.”  Then he was much angrier and it took him a while just to transition into being present at the dinner table.   For a great conversationalist, it was very noticeable. Now there’s tons of research, and the thing that’s really hard is to listen to the research because we’ve all fallen in love with tech, our lives now revolve around it, and it’s very hard to push the pause button and reboot. The other thing was I was really curious to interview kids about what it’s like to be a child growing up in the digital age. What’s it like for a four-year-old, a 14-year-old, or a 24-year-old with a parent who has a laptop and iPad? I was very lucky, I was able to go to 30 schools around the country and interview 1,250 kids.

SF: What did you discover?

CSA: The thing that really blew me away was how frustrated and exhausted kids of all ages are trying to get their parents’ attention. It was really sad to hear children using the same adjectives —angry, sad, madly, lonely, frustrated — at every age. We’ve got to outsmart our smartphones.   The work-family boundary is gone with technology. As wonderful as technology is, and it is here to stay, it makes it really hard to know when you can disconnect from work and when are the moments to be totally present to your family.

SF: I would say that it’s not that the boundary is gone, it’s just that now has to be managed intelligently, consciously,  and deliberately given the fact that we’ve got our work with us all the time.

CSA: Well, that’s what I mean. You could, ostensibly, now be at work 24/7. It used to be that you come home from work, and now work travels in your back pocket with you wherever you go.

SF: Yes, and we’re just learning as a species how to manage this new technology. Tell us more about what you discovered. I thought you were going to say that what you discovered was that kids themselves were having trouble with their ability to pay attention.

CSA: The book is full of stories about that, and I expected to find that.  But it’s very rare to listen to kids at four and 14 and 24, when asked a question, all go to the same answer. They all had the same thing to say for every problem, and that’s what shocked me.

SF: The 24-year-olds were saying, “I can’t get my mother’s attention because she’s on her smartphone?”

CSA: You bet, and they had the same examples. For instance, six- and seven-year-olds would say things like, “I hate it when my mom says ‘Can’t wait to see you after school, honey. I’ll be first in line at pickup,’ and then I get in the car and she’s talking to grandma.” And then the 24-year-old or 26-year-old would say, “It’s so annoying, it makes me so mad, and it actually feels really hurtful when my parents are so excited to pick me up and they meet me and they say they’ll be behind TSA and we get in the car and they ask me something really important like ‘Which job are you going to take?’  or ‘Did you really break up with your girlfriend?’ and three seconds in, they were taking a call to make a golf game or dinner reservations.” We ask them a serious question, and then we say, “Oops, just wait a sec.”

SF: The message conveyed is that there’s something more important in my life than you.

CSA: That’s right, and that’s what kids are really struggling with.   That’s a message I got from my parents, and that’s fine. It’s about how often they get it. Since smartphones have come out we’ve created a new cultural norm. When you step back and reflect on it, it’s pretty staggering; the norm is that it is okay to be in a conversation with your husband, your wife, your partner, your kids, and at the sound of a ping or a little vibration of your phone you ask them to freeze in time and you turn your attention elsewhere. You don’t even know who it is that’s calling, but whatever it is, the message is that this matters more, this is more important, I’m leaving you in the moment.

SF: But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it?

CSA: No, of course it doesn’t have to be that way. We have to be a lot more thoughtful. Right now we’re sort of at the whim of phones.

SF: So how do you help people to detach in a way that allows them to pay attention to the people who matter when they need to be attended to?

CSA: When it comes to kids, I think there are certain times in the day that it’s really important to be tech-free.  You need to have it in your head that you’re not going to even take out your phone, it’s just an off-time.  Get up a half-hour earlier than your kids so you do all your email and then know for the next 45 minutes, you’re off-line because it’s a frantic time getting out the door and kids need nice parents, not cranky parents to get annoyed because the parents are texting. And then, in the car on the way to school, especially for little children, playing Candy Crush makes the ride easy but it’s not what they need psychologically or neurologically.   And kids of all ages hate hearing their parents talk on Bluetooth. Another time that’s really important is when you come home from work. Stand in the rain, stand in the snow, but do not walk in your house in a conversation because you’re not coming home from work, you’re bringing work home.

SF: And everybody knows that.

CSA: They do, and kids of all ages, six and 16 say, “I never run and hug my father when he walks in the door anymore because all I’m going to get is ‘Hold on, honey. This is really important; I really want to see you in just one sec.’” Technology has really changed how we think about time and how we think about what’s important.  Many adults have this new habit of mind that they walk in the door, they say a quick “Hi” to everybody, and the next thing they say is, “I’m just going to go check my email,” and then they’re gone for 25 minutes, two hours, they’re checking out.  So one of the things I would suggest you ask yourself is: Is there any reason, is there anything absolutely urgent that means you cannot come home, walk in the door, and have whatever it is, 45 minutes, an hour-and-a-half, where you are completely offline. I also interviewed 500 teachers and 500 parents.

SF: So you spoke to teachers in your research?

CSA: Teachers had very similar things to say. I’ve actually just come back from six weeks on the road, and teachers everywhere say the same things .They’re seeing kids can’t self-regulate as well.

SF: What does that mean? Can you translate that?

CSA: They can’t calm themselves down.

SF: You mean they need their devices?

CSA: They need their devices. They’re jittery, they’re twitchy, they’re so used to the fast pace, instant gratification, the automatic start, the device gets you to the next level. You think about the difference between playing dress-up in real life and playing dress-up on an iPad, the iPad has nothing to offer a child. Dress-up is a great thing to play for coordination if you are a little person walking around in big boots and stuff, and it’s great for your imagination. You’re making up a story, and you have your own internal vision of what a warrior or a princess or whatever it is you are, instead of abiding by these gender stereotypes. Most of all, the biggest thing that they see kids giving up on so quickly is their own imagination. It’s called the capacity for deep play. When you’re playing and you come to a quiet spot and you realize hey, I have a new idea. When kids play computer games all the time, the computer spits out one idea after another, and not that it’s not creative sometimes, some things kids do on computers are amazing, but when you do it a lot, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, junk or great stuff, the pace of it, the stimulation of it, because it’s a neurological stimulant to the brain, for some children starts to make play in real life seem slow and boring and like more work. That’s something we have to be careful about.

SF: Roger, calling from British Columbia. Roger, welcome to Work and Life.

Roger: Mr. Friedman, you made the comment that we’re the first generation to have 24-hour work, and I wanted to interject into the argument that farmers have had 24-hour work in their life, forever, and so have hunters and other people who make their living off the land, and they haven’t had any problem separating their kids from their life and vice versa.

SF: I would say, Roger, that it’s a great point, but for farmers, when the sun goes down or when the seasons change, there are times for rest and there are times for reaping, times for sowing, that are conditioned by the natural order of things, by the natural world. With digital devices, there are no such cycles of the sun that can tell us when to rest and when to work, so it is a little different. It’s true that we’re not the first generation to be working around the clock, but it’s a different order of things when the sun doesn’t matter anymore and you can be connected all the time, any time.

Catherine, you mentioned that teachers are seeing a reduced capacity for imagination, the need for that twitchy hit to give students something to keep them attending.

CSA: When you play computer games, every time you do something, you match lowercase ‘a’ to uppercase ‘A’, there are butterflies, there are sparkles, there are little tweety birds who sing to you, and that in-and-of-itself is a reinforcement and it’s a stimulant so kids start to expect teachers to say “great job all the time. The other thing is kids interrupt more. They can’t stay calm. That’s what self-regulation is all about.

SF: What does this portend for our future?

CSA: I think one of the things that’s really tricky is we’ve fallen in love with the great aspects of technology.  We’ve got schools heavily invested in iPads and you’re sending middle-schoolers and high-schoolers home with homework on an iPad but they’re not just doing their homework on the iPad, they’re doing two or three different things and they’re not developing the same capacity for focus and attention and deep thinking, and that’s a challenge everybody’s grappling with, everywhere.

SF: What more can parents do? You talked about the importance of turning it off, being conscious, thinking about if you really need to take this call and what’s the cost to you, to your family life, to your future family relationships. These are things that anybody can do.

CSA: I think every house can have an understanding that in the family room, for example, no one’s got a screen of any kind. How about designating it like a smoking room;  have a designated space for people who are on their devices, but make sure you have a screen-free place because what typically happens is you’re all hanging out in the living room and suddenly one person takes out their phone and instantly — it’s contagious — everybody else follows suit.

SF: What do you do when, people are addicted now? You’re talking about cold turkey?

CSA: Well, it depends. We use the word addicted here with lowercase ‘a’. They use the word in Asia with capital ‘A’ because they have over 300 treatment programs for 5-to-18-year-olds who are what they have medically diagnosed as addicted to technology. We don’t have that medical classification yet.

SF: Are you sure? I thought the DSM 5 had it.

CSA: It’s considering it for gaming. But in Asia they have technology addiction. They have different ways of talking about and their approach to treatment is very harsh. If you want to see, it was very moving to me, watch Web Junkie.

SF: What happens there?

CSA: At this particular treatment center in China, the way they work with teenagers who are clearly addicted to technology is they put them in solitary confinement. We hardly put anybody in solitary confinement for any kind of mental disorder in America. What we do here, and more and more programs are popping up, is that we send kids and adults into the wilderness on programs like Outward Bound for extended amounts of time.  Nature’s a beautiful place for families to go on vacation, or to make sure on the weekend you all have time off of technology, or to make sure every day your kids’ brains have a rest from technology. You have basically until eighth grade to teach your kids how not to have their devices in their bedroom when they fall asleep. This is a critical issue that kids learn not to depend psychologically on having a computer and smartphone in their bedroom when they sleep because they don’t sleep as well and therefore they don’t learn as much because sleep is so important for health and learning. There are all sorts of habits we want to reconsider, and parents can do a lot both for themselves (and it’s not good for couples to have iPads in beds. It’s not good to read that way, and people often feel ignored) and for their children.

SF:  That’s also true with reading books in bed, no?

CSA: Yes, but your brain doesn’t interact with a book nearly the same way as the light of a screen from a computer which disrupts your brain’s ability to produce melatonin. It’s much easier to fall asleep reading a book or even watching TV than it is to fall asleep on a computer.

SF: Why is that? Why is TV better than a computer?

CSA: It has to do with the intensity of the light, with the way your brain interacts.

SF: I imagine many parents would face all kinds of resistance to enacting some of the suggestions that you have offered. How do you manage the process of change?

CSA: It’s very hard, and this is something I had to go through with my own kids. I talk in the book about having a family responsibly use disagreement, and it’s something you revisit all the time. I think the best thing to do is really sit down with the adults, whoever they are in your household, and really try to think about whether we are creating the family life we want? Do we have a quality of conversations we want? Are we playing enough together as a family? You want to make sure you have fun together as a family. Kids love it when their parents play with them. That was another thing, four-year-olds and 18-year-olds say, “My daddy’s smartphone is a stupid phone because he said he was going to read to me and he didn’t,” and the 18-year-old version of that is, “I love my dad. He works so hard and I’m so proud of him. He has this amazing job and we get to go on these amazing vacations, but I hate it and it makes me so angry and so hurt when I have to say ‘Dad, do you really have to text on the ski lift? Is there any time family comes first?’” Our kids grow quickly, and you really have to protect those moments, and those cumulative moments and experiences that create the foundation of a family.

SF: Absolutely, and protection is such a great word for that because there is this kind of incursion that modern life is making on our intimate lives through these devices, wonderful and powerful and incredibly liberating as they are, but we’ve got to rein them in.

CSA: We do, and we can. There’s nothing here that we can’t do. Is it good to text your kid to come to dinner? No, it’s not. Go knock on their door, and even if they bark at you, you know what’s going on for them in that moment, and kids really like it when we make the personal effort to go get them. On the other hand, teenagers will text their parents things they’re afraid to say face to face. That’s a wonderful thing; anything that helps a child tell a parent something that they’re scared about is a beautiful thing. There are times to use these wonderful tools and there are times not to, and it’s really a matter of being more thoughtful about it.

SF: I ask the students in my Total Leadership class to think about the key people in their lives and how they communicate with them — through what media? They learn to become more thoughtful about, “I’m spending a lot of time texting with this person, face-to-face with that person. Maybe I should switch it up and use different forms of communication with different people.” I also ask them to detox, to take six hours sometime this week and shut down and then reflect on what happens. Of course, what they discover is that flowers are beautiful.

CSA: So true, and that should be part of a way of life, a “Tech Shabbat”. We can all think about whether we give ourselves 24 hours? Six hours is great, but try for more.

SF: I’m going for something that’s doable for an MBA student!  What’s the last thing that you want to leave our listeners with?

CSA: For the next couple days, email or text everybody in your family and try and get a group conversation about how you’re going to handle Thanksgiving and digital media. It’s a really hard thing because families have different rules for their children, people have different expectations. The goal is to try and come up with an agreement before you arrive at your destination, and it will make things much better. If you can’t get an agreement, try and respect differences.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.

You, Your Mobile Device and Your Child — Dr. Jenny Radesky

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Dr. Jenny Radesky of Boston University Medical Center received her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins and her medical degree from Harvard and then trained in Seattle.   Her research interests include use of mobile media by parents, young children’s self-regulation, parent mental health, and parent-child interaction.  She is also exploring how digital resources can support parent engagement with their child’s development and social and emotional health.  She is a member of the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media as well as the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

The following are edited excerpts of her conversation with Stew Friedman about digital technology and its impact on boundaries between work and the rest of life.

Stewart Friedman: You’re a pediatrician, a doctor that works with kids. How did you get interested in parent’s use of mobile devices in front of their children? And what have you learned?

Jenny Radesky: jenny radeskyI got into this when I was working as a primary care doctor in Seattle. It was right after the iPad had been released and iPhones were becoming much more of a factor in our culture.   I was fascinated by how it much it changed the dynamic in the office setting. I wasn’t seeing this as good or bad. I observed that this was a new cultural trend that we’re going to have to study and figure out.  It’s good in some ways because it’s connecting parents to their spouse or information or what I was telling them about, but it also put up a new barrier.  I found that there was less eye contact, attention,  and social engagement.

SF: This is with the children?

JR: The child or with me.  So I started developmental behavioral pediatrics training.

SF: Developmental behavioral pediatrics training, what is that?

JR: A pediatrician who specializes in children who have developmental differences. I see a lot of kids with autism, ADHD, developmental delays, learning disabilities, fussy babies, anything that is a little deviation or concern for parents about their child’s development. I worked and trained in a pretty low-end part of Boston, so I’ve been really interested in what forces of resilience we can nurture in kids growing up in poverty. And the parent/child relationship is the number one source of resilience for so many kids.  And for all kids it is a major source of how kids develop their language, their cognitive skills, their social skills, the way that they can handle strong emotions.  So putting this all together as I’m training, as I’m learning more about how to watch parents and kids interacting in exam rooms, I’m seeing more and more technology, this kind of portable device entering into the dynamic much more than it ever had before.   That’s why I tried to start this line of research, to begin the questions:  How is this affecting the dynamic?  What ways can we use technology that will be disruptive?  And what ways can we use it that might bring kids and parents together?  I’ve found it’s so highly-relevant for my own family dynamic.

SF: You mean your own personal family?

JR: Yes. I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old. My six-year-old has special needs. It’s really interesting to watch the way they differ, interact with technology, and the way they demand my presence when I get home. I work full-time. My husband works from home. We really have examined this closely since I’ve started studying it because I experience it all the time.

SF: What have you learned? What are some of the big ideas that have come from your study and your practice?

JR:  The biggest thing I find interesting about this is that mobile devices and the sort of rapidly-evolving technology that we’re constantly using throughout the day can contain so much of our lives. It contains our work emails, it contains information, data, news. It contains good news and bad news.  I find when I’ve been interviewing a lot of parents about their own technology use, the amount of emotional and cognitive reaction that they have to what they’re doing on their devices is really remarkable. It’s so different than just watching TV or reading a book.
SF: Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean?

JR: Parents describe it as they’re so invested in their work lives. They don’t really want to be irrelevant in their careers, so they might be in the middle of playing with their child or out at the playground and get an email that really upsets them or really makes them feel oh, I’ve got to answer this right away, I’ve really got to act on this. Some people describe it as intrusive.  Some people describe it as they’re happy that they can have the opportunity to be at the playground and still be working.   But it’s a new type of cognitive balance that they need to achieve.

SF: Are they really at the playground?

JR: They can be. On and off and on and off. There’s a lot of toggling that parents describe between “work brain” and “child brain.” That’s not easy because your work brain is very task-oriented and analytic and your child brain is often trying to be more emotional and flexible. The parents describe that feeling as pretty hard, especially when the child is reacting to the parent’s withdrawal.

SF: Withdrawal into their work stream through their digital device to which they’re reacting very emotionally because they’re missing out on something or they need to respond to some urgent matter that their boss or colleague is asking them for?

JR: Right.   And sometimes it also depends on the child. One of the studies we’ve done was just observing families in fast food restaurants during meals. We know that mealtimes are very important for parent/child interaction, time when kids have a lot of conversation and emotional connection. Fast food meals, maybe not so much. For probably half the kids, not much happens. People didn’t talk.

SF: When mom or dad’s cellphone comes out, you mean?

JR: Yes.  Not many kids used devices during this study. It was a pretty small sample, we only observed 55 families to try and get an idea of how we should start studying this. Some kids just hung out, didn’t make any sort of attempt to get their parent’s attention. They played with what they were doing, and there was very little interaction during the meal. For the other half of children, they really amped it up. They would be just silly or do provocative things to try to get the parent’s attention, which is very stressful when you’re trying to do something on your phone. You’re trying to think, and you keep getting interrupted. So we saw a bunch of parents yell at their kids, or one mom pushed her son’s hands away when he was trying to lift her head up, lift her face up from the tablet she was looking at. We saw more parents looking really stressed and starting to raise their voices and starting to show more negativity towards their kids.

SF: Probably not realizing that the instigation for this sort of escalation of the child’s attention-seeking behavior is caused by the arrival of the smartphone into the family environment.

JR: You bring up a really good point. One of the things I’m really interested in is something called mind-mindedness, which is how parents understand the motivation for their child’s behavior, how parents can kind of read their child’s mind and say: “I know you just said something annoying, but I realize that the real underlying reason was because you were upset about this, so let me help you with the thing you were upset about rather than just punish you for the behavior.One thing that a lot of parents say, and I’ve definitely experienced this myself, is when your mind is busy analyzing or working on something, it’s really hard to switch over to analyzing the child and being mind-minded about them. I’m way more likely to just react to the behavior, to snap at them. I really have to put it down, take a breath, and say,  “what’s going on here?” in order to actually solve the problem and see why they want my attention.

SF:  It’s hard to take the time to have some empathy for and understanding of the motivation for your kids’ behavior when you’re busy trying to solve a work problem.

JR: And the other thing is that reading children’s behavior takes a lot of practice.  Parenting is not as intuitive as people want to believe, especially when there is a child with any developmental differences or self-regulation problem. Sometimes their behavior is just bizarre and, as a parent, you really need those unhurried, undistracted times of getting to know your kid’s rhythm, getting to know their behavior to be able to respond to their behavior and help them navigate whatever sort of difficulties they’re having. There was a really interesting study that came out last summer of teens and pre-teens.  They found that when they randomized teenagers to a week of summer camp without any screens versus a week of summer camp where they had full access to any sort of screens or mobile devices, after they came back from summer camp, the kids without screens were significantly higher on tests of reading other people’s facial expressions.  This is something I care about because all my families where children struggle with social skills, they really work on reading other people’s non-verbal behaviors and facial expressions.

SF: The source of signals about emotional life.

JR: Exactly. I thought it was a fascinating study because it shows you just how much practice, the day-to-day hanging out with other kids, being face-to-face with them, reading their faces, problem-solving together, really builds some sort of emotional intelligence.

SF: Which is so critical for survival and success in life in general. So does this imply that parents should be restricting or circumscribing their kids’ access and their own access to digital devices under certain circumstances?

JR:  The American Academy of Pediatrics (and I am on their Council of Communications and Media) just came out with a new set of tips and guidelines for parents about how to help manage their child’s digital media use when it feels like our kids are swimming in it. How can you talk about screen time when there are screens everywhere? The guidelines try to be very evidence-based but also real-world about the fact that this is harder to navigate now that it’s not just turning the TV on or off, or turning the computer on or off. We still are recommending trying to put time limits on this because we know that teenagers are spending eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens. This was an estimate from three or four years ago. It’s probably even more than that today. Using multiple screens at a time, hanging out in clusters, sometimes mostly communicating through screens. I think it’s really changed the way that young people communicate with each other, and not always in a bad way. But in a way that I think Sherry Turkle has really highlighted in her new book. She did a lot of interviews with young adults talking about how this has changed their comfort with reading each other’s nonverbal signals and being able to tolerate the boredom or distress of a difficult moment or conversation. So when Sherry and I have talked about this (her realm is the adolescents and my realm is the parents of young kids) there are those moments of trying to tolerate my young kids’ distress where I would just love to get on my own screen, get them on theirs, and have quiet in the house. And sometimes you need to do that, and I would much rather the parents do that than do something drastic, but I just don’t want it to be the main way that families learn to cope with conflict or frustration.

SF: And now it’s become so easy to do that as a source of relief from the great strain and stress of dealing with difficult moments with your kids. What does this foretell about the future of humanity? Where are we headed?

JR: I think we’re going to be okay. Most of the families that I see have a really strong sense of wanting to be wary of this. They recognize the discomfort in this cultural change, they want some guidance on how to navigate it. I just saw a family this morning that was saying, “My son watches Minecraft videos on YouTube for three hours a day and I can’t get him to do his homework and I don’t know why he wants to do this.” As pediatricians and other providers, we need to get comfortable with how to give guidance and how to help replace some of that time, that we see as pretty passive consumption of media, with either using digital media in a creative way, doing something where he’s constructing things or building things or composing music or doing something else with digital media, or to get him interested in some other hands-on or social activity that will give him that same feeling of calmness or fascination that the video is providing him.

SF: Unless that video is providing him with an outlook that really is a productive one for him.

JR: And it could be. Digital media serves so many good, functional purposes for families. One of the things I really advocate for amongst pediatricians giving advice about this is that you have to understand the function of the use of this. If this is the only way this child knows how to calm down, we need to work on teaching other ways, and we need to give the parents other ways and give them a viable replacement, because nothing works as easily as this, and we really need to empower the parents to use other approaches.

SF: I want to turn back to what you were saying earlier about the parent bringing the device out and it causing an escalating cycle of tension by removing him/her from the family environment psychologically by attending to the black mirror. I don’t know if you saw Susan Dominus’ piece in The New York Times recently; it was called Motherhood, Screened Off. Basically, what she described there is when she was a kid and her mother went to her address book, Susan knew that her mother was looking up an address, when she went to the newspaper it was clear that she was reading the newspaper, checking the weather, being current on the world events and the environment. But now, you go to a screen, and as you said earlier, it could be anything. Your whole stream of information comes through that device and your child doesn’t know what you’re doing. The solution that Susan is trying is to narrate what she’s doing so her child knows why she’s doing what she’s doing, and thereby to help the child understand the purpose of her not being attentive at that moment. What do you think about that approach?

JR: I like it because it is, in one way, teaching the child digital literacy. We often talk about this idea of teaching children digital literacy, learning to use digital technology as a tool, not as an end in and of itself. She’s narrating how she’s using it as a tool. It also gives the child, who may be in many different stages of cognitive or social-emotional understanding, and idea of what his mom doing.  One of the things we’ve thought might be confusing or dis-regulating for the child is this sudden change in facial expression. People have called it the still face. I have this great photo of myself that my mother-in-law took, where my son is bounding around the yard smiling and I’m in the background looking at my cell phone with this totally furrowed brow, not in the moment at all. I love it because it’s probably me checking my work email and things come up with patients or things I’m concerned about and it totally sucks me in.

SF: Your patients are happy about that part, that you’re present for them. But what does that mean for your son?

JR: That’s why I’m really interested in some of the discussions about how do we make work less overflowing? How can we filter out the noise that keeps coming into my inbox or the inefficiencies that make my workday overflow into my time with my kids?  Part of that is my own rules that I’m not good at, which is when I see someone needs help from me, I react to it and I send way too many late-night emails.

SF: What advice do you have for working parents based on your research and your practice to help them manage the boundary between their work and their family lives with respect to their use of screens?

JR: I think the first is not to react with guilt about this. I really want my message to be that I’m not doing this research to tell parents one more thing that they’re doing wrong, because I’m totally in the thick of it myself. I’m really doing it, number one, to make aspects of parenting young children a little bit easier, because it’s hard enough. Number two, to try and understand the way that these new demands that are placed on the family unit are affecting some of the dynamics and how we might slowly shift that, whether it’s through technology interventions or through types of recommendations that we put out through the AAP. One of the things we always say is to create those boundaries in your home and make a rule for it. When I get home, I know I have a solid hour-and-a-half that’s meal, book, then bedtime with my kids, and unless there’s some emergency that I need to attend to, my phone or tablet usually stays in my bag. My husband jokes that I take it out and ignore him for the rest of the night, but we are really explicit about trying to communicate well with each other when we want time with each other, when it’s okay to have a work night. The other thing I’ve been attempting to do is find ways to filter out the inefficient ways that I’m sending multiple emails to solve a minor problem, when there are things that can be resolved with a simple face-to-face discussion.  I might have to wait a day for that. I need to start being comfortable with tolerating that.  That’s a way of me reducing the amount that I have to do after I get home.

SF: Being more mindful about your choices about what you attend to and through what medium.

JR: Finally, I encourage parents to just be reflective about the way they react to technology.  It’s all based on our own emotional reactivity and our own personalities.  For one person, being able to text during meals is actually a really fun way to have social interactions with someone who’s not physically there.  That’s different from, for example, when I get that urge to check emails when I’m bored at the playground, but then I get sucked in.  Maybe I need to have a rule that I can check the weather, I can check my personal email when I’m at the playground, but if I don’t want to get sucked in I should resist the urge to check work email.

Learn about The American Academy’s tips to help parents manage the new digital landscape.


Jacob Adler , jacob adlerW’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.