The power of human: Re-inventing technology to prompt more social connection


In the past year, we have been asked — by startups and seasoned companies — if it might be time to build modern digital friends for young children. After all, today’s kids spend a tremendous amount of time on digital devices — anywhere from 3 to 7 to 11 hours per day. If they are going to use their digital devices solo anyway, it makes sense for them to have “someone” to play with, right?

Would children benefit from owning a compassionate and intelligent robot or an on screen “friend” app that can listen to them and respond in ways that build on products like Alexa or Siri?

As we pondered these questions, however, the literature on digital toy and app use give us pause. Might we be reducing children’s opportunities to develop the very skills that they need to grow up to be socially-sensitive and compassionate humans — real life human-to-human social interaction. This unease is fueled a basket of recent studies describing how digital technologies seem to compromise social engagement.

Social Interaction

Social interaction is the foundation of what it means to be human. Humans are born into a social world and the very essence of learning starts with a socially primed brain. Human-to-human, back and forth — contingent — interactions support language growth, cultural practices, and even brain development .

A majority of digital apps actually disrupt opportunities for social interaction. For example, during app play, contingent caregiver-child social interaction dissipates compared to the elaborate contingent interactions observed during more traditional play. Similar results in the pre-app era revealed parents use fewer words when their toddlers played with a digital toy sorter compared to playing with a non-digital version. The non-digital toy essentially prompted greater parental language that creates the foundation for contingent interaction between caregivers and children.

Some e-book research also points to restricted interactions between caregivers and children compared to reading traditional books. When reading e-books, caregivers are less likely to ask questions or to start conversations because if they interject they interrupt the audio narration — limiting social interactions. The same pattern occurred in our lab when parents and children read either a traditional book or battery-operated, touch-sensitive console book together in the pre-e-book era. This is notable, as children still learn more when reading e-books with caregivers than when reading e-books solo.

Impact of Caregivers

There is also a growing body of data revealing that the simple presence of caregivers using digital technology is impacting toddlers. Our lab has found digital devices that distract parents from their toddler makes it tougher for toddlers to learn novel words . This complements work indicating caregivers using digital devices in front of their 7- to 24-month-olds relate to infant distress . Traditional contingent play between moms and infants was disrupted when moms were asked to use a digital device and ignored their infants for two minutes. Although moms resumed playing with their infants again, the infants exhibited distress when the social integration was disrupted by the tech. Critically, even after moms resumed playing, distress lingered for infants’ whose parents frequently use digital devices in front of them.

Though the research is still limited, the trickle of studies that do exist suggest that apps and digital devices are often designed in ways that discourage all-important contingent social interaction. But it does not have to be this way. Digital devices could support social connectedness and prompt live, human-to-human social interaction.

Video chat offers a prime example. Our lab examined how contingency with or without digital devices supports children’s word-learning . Toddlers were taught novel verbs live in a room with a researcher, live on video chat with a researcher, or while watching a prerecorded video of the researcher. Toddlers learned better from live and video chat interactions than the non-contingent video — meaning the contingent social interaction mattered for learning, not the medium. Digital technology that involves contingency may be one key for prompting social interactions that spur socially-fueled outcomes.

This brings us back to the question of modern digital friends. If we want to support social development, maybe it is not quite time for digital friends. There is something about the back and forth social contingency between live people that is a kind of human glue — a glue that bonds the foundation for social skills and for learning. How can we create more opportunities like video chat — or more apps — that support in-person joint interaction or even play?


The challenge for the industry is how to encourage live, in person social interactions from digital toys and apps. How can designers create digital toys and apps that prompt more human-to-human connections? How can we harness the power of human while still enjoying the reach and unfathomable possibilities of digital tools?

Actionable Insights

  • Start with apps like Pokemon GO to glean inspiration from, and brainstorm new apps that encourage person to person interaction, AND are engaging and meaningful, not just a replication of the hit game.
  • Think Geocache. How could you create games that teens could use in pairs to find a “National Treasure” while learning about the history of a city or area? How could they solve a great riddle with their friends?
  • Products like Alexa and Siri are motivating the digital friend movement. Now twist the idea. Ask how these products already encourage greater interaction with the digital device, but how could they actually prompt in-person social interaction instead?

Molly Schleisinger is a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University where she leads the Playful Learning Landscape initiative and publishes on play and technology.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is the Lefkowitz faculty fellow in psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has published 14 books, hundreds of articles and is an expert in the areas of play and learning, early childhood, language and literacy and STEM development.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.

Originally published at on December 28, 2018.



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