New communication tools are often considered responsible for shortcomings in human relations today. Of course, these means have limits and if there is no balance in those who use them, they can actually become dangerous, even leading to depression. But it is good sometimes to shift attention from the objects to those who use them, to remind us that it’s we, and not the things we possess, that are responsible for what we do.

As a mother and researcher in this field, I believe that we are not “condemned” to raise robot children, unable to take their eyes off an iPad, unable to think and really love, just because “this is the world they are in.”

The ability to communicate authentically arises in the family. Although social networks can contribute to squashing feelings, inhibiting dialogue, understanding, and analysis, it is what is sown in the hearts and minds of young people that makes the difference.

I like to think that, today, just as yesterday and hopefully tomorrow, a cautious family can make up for the socio-cultural deficits that it finds itself having to deal with.

I like to think that communicating in a fully human way with children and teenagers can also lead them to do so, regardless of the TV in the living room.

A personal communication – in the literal sense of the term – occurs when one recognizes in the other a “you” to meet and draw out. But such a relationship, “I-you” rather than “I-it” – to quote the philosopher Martin Buber – is built much more easily if a person has been treated as “you” since he or she was small.

So I propose three aspects of communication which, in my opinion, should not be lacking in the family if we want to educate children about “real”, sincere and profound relationships.

Look at the other carefully

If many kids don’t know how to “look at others” it’s not just because they are blinded by their phones, but also – and perhaps above all – because they haven’t really been “seen” themselves. Precisely because they do not know how to relate to others, they flee such encounters, hiding behind a keyboard.

If children do not value the beauty of others, perhaps it is because, as the youth fiction writer Alessandro D’Avenia maintains, nobody has yet seen and shown them the beauty that is within them.

Every educator, especially the parent, is called to do this: to look deeply into the lives of children, to pay attention to everything, to the details, to the expression on his or her face. The educator is called to observe what the child loves or does not like, what causes him joy and pain. He is called to show the child his or her own beauty.

All this implies putting the child at the center and not at the margins of one’s life, knowing that whoever is treated as a person, who feels important to someone, will learn to treat others as persons, regardless of whether they have a smartphone in their pocket.

Proximity and openness to listening

Self-centeredness and vanity reign supreme in our society. We talk, we tell, we show ourselves off more than we care about others. The various social networks and TV channels reinforce these attitudes: it is easier to “perform” through them than to offer oneself to others. And yet, if communication tools had the power to automatically close the ears and hearts of those who use them, we would have to say that all those who use them are dull and narcissistic, self-centered and insensitive to others. But it isn’t necessarily so.

The ability or inability to get close to the other does not come from the social networks. It has to do with something deeper: emotional maturity, our inner life. Family life should be an education in this proximity, without which there is no authentically human communication.

One way to promote proximity is to undertake and encourage a willingness to listen . As educators and parents we should set an example, listening twice as much as we speak (as the 4th century Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium said, we have two ears and one mouth precisely for this reason).

If in the family we learn to listen and take an interest in others, Instagram or Facebook will certainly not make us lose these precious qualities…

Educate yourself and educate others about empathy

How many times on social media do we read frivolous or scornful comments, full of clichés and hatred? How often do we notice insensitivity and superficiality in regarding the lives of others?

“Social networks have made us cynical and ruthless,” some say.

Certainly, it does not help to spend hours and hours in front of a screen talking to or about people perceived to be so distant as to become almost unreal; but the deeper reason why “you shoot point blank” at others, their actions, their problems, is that a healthy education in empathy has been lacking.

To return to the concept of Buber, the other is not some-thing, but rather a “you,” with his or her own story, wounds, sufferings, and difficulties. To educate oneself and educate about empathy means to ask oneself about the why behind the actions of the other, try to put oneself in his shoes, ask oneself what he feels and how to help him, instead of condemning.

Teaching a child to ask himself what is on his mind and in the heart of another is a great start.

Empathy must be experienced first of all in the family: it is not irrelevant whether a child’s tears are dried or not, if he is asked how he is, how he gets along with his companions, if something makes him suffer, why he made a certain gesture.

A child or young person who has experienced empathy from others for himself will be more inclined to empathize with others.

The purpose of this article is not to commend the new communication tools, nor, even less, to exonerate them from all the problems attributed to them. We know that they can actually be problematic and risky, especially for “unripe” young people, who are subject to rebellion and change.

The point here is just to focus on the importance of an education that starts “from within” and that aims to develop the ability to communicate in a fully human way, regardless of the tools used.

Social networks can complicate the work of the educator, but they must not become an alibi or the scapegoat, in order to not admit educational and affective deficiencies that do not depend on them.

Cecilia Galatolo writes for Family and Media where this article was originally published. It is republished here with permission.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...