Don Gale: Democracy requires better social development

Problems with social maturity did not begin with the internet and cell phones.

(Kiichiro Sato | AP photo) In this Sept. 25, 2015, photo, a child holds an Apple iPhone 6S at an Apple store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile in Chicago. The World Health Organization Wednesday, April 24, 2019, issued its first-ever guidance for how much screen time children under 5 should get: not very much, and none at all for those under 1.

Someone who knows said recently that many 18-year-old students arriving on college campuses today have the social maturity of 15-year-olds. That helps explain rising mental health challenges and other issues at colleges and universities.

It’s sad to see a teenager sitting alone, thumb-pounding her telephone and staring at the lifeless screen. She should be with two or three friends talking, laughing, learning, growing. It is equally sad to see parents hand a 4-year-old a “screen” to keep him quietly absorbed when he should be focused on learning how to behave in social situations.

The causes of today’s delayed social development are many. First, cell phones help isolate young people from face-to-face interactions with peers. Second, social networks do the same; 100 “friends” on Facebook do not equal five live friends in the same room. Third, too many youngsters rarely shop in person, choosing the isolation of internet purchases. Fourth, our cashless society takes human interaction out of most purchasing interactions, substituting smart phones and self-checkout stations. Fifth “virtual reality” goggles make it possible to “share” experiences with others in far-off places – an illusion, not a reality. Sixth, young people read Harry Potter books and attend comic book movies where role models are fantasy figures, not human beings. Seventh, COVID forced personal isolation and absentee education. Eighth, for young people turned adults, “working from home” spreads social inadequacies into adult populations.

The answer is not to restrict or eliminate modern technologies. That would be foolish – like draining Lake Meade to “save” the environment — and, in the process, eliminating an important source of “clean” electric energy while at the same time denying needed water to the Imperial Valley where crops provide food for millions.

Besides, social irresponsibility was increasing even before the invention of cell phones. Fifteen-year-old social development was common. Consider the school-yard bullying of the senate minority leader. Or the 15-year-old social skills of the recent president. Or the child-like antics of hundreds who stormed the nation’s Capitol last year. Or the socially irresponsible acts of those who break store windows and blatantly steal merchandise.

No, the answer is not to restrict technology. The answer to stilted social development is for social institutions to increase and improve efforts in that realm. Families must do more to make sure children participate in social activities. Organized activities are good, but simply “hanging out” with others from varied backgrounds is also important.

Religious organizations should focus more on bringing young people together in situations where they have opportunities to gain experience through unstructured interaction. And education at all levels should focus as much on the fourth ‘r’ – relationships – as they do on the other three – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — or, if you prefer today’s vocational emphasis, science, technology, engineering and math.

Over a lifetime of schooling, working and retiring, the need for social functioning is at least as important as absorbing more data, learning work skills, and planning for old age.

Social development is also a vital component of good citizenship. Socially responsible citizens do not judge their neighbors solely because they look, act or believe differently. Socially responsible citizens understand that democracy cannot survive unless citizens obey its laws without the need for constant enforcement. Socially adjusted individuals voluntarily observe both laws and generally accepted rules of social conduct.

Social maturity is a vital component of modern life. It is basic to successful marriage, successful child-rearing, successful career-building, and successful living. But like most human behavior – good and bad – social maturity is learned. Fifteen-year-olds have much to learn.

Don Gale.

Utah-born journalist Don Gale is thankful for family, teachers, friends and associates who devoted time, energy and attention teaching him to function socially.