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Life Skills for the Digital Age: Choosing the Right Technology

In the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about the skills and knowledge that we need for the digital age. I’m not talking about technology skills, but life skills. In his book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, author William Powers observes that every new technology both solves problems and creates new challenges. He discusses the need, now that we are increasingly connected, to learn the art of disconnecting so we can deepen our both our real life and online experiences.

Disconnecting is not the only skill that we are now being challenged to learn. After a recent podcast interview that I did with Dr. Faye Mishna on cyberbullying and then witnessing several escalating email conflicts among colleagues, I am convinced that there are several new social skills needed to effectively manage relationships in the digital age, or at least the knowledge about where and when to apply skills in these new contexts.

In my own struggles to work productively, I realize that much of what I have struggled with recently has focused on figuring out how to effectively integrate technology into my work and personal life, and how to make sure that I, not the technology, am the one making choices about how and when to be connected.

Here are some questions I have considered that relate to some of the new skills and knowledge we are each now challenged to learn:

  • What social interactions are ideal for text messaging? Chat? Email? Which are not?
  • When does an interaction need to move from a text-based platform, to one that involves voice? Images? Face to face?
  • What is appropriate to share about your workplace on your blog/Facebook/Twitter? About your life?
  • What work tasks are best completed when connected to the Internet? Disconnected?
  • How can we set up our work areas/screens so we can maximize our ability to focus?
  • What evening routines (relative to technology/electronics) promote relaxation and restful sleep?
  • What’s the right balance between technology and non-technology-based activities for free time? What combination will result a true feeling of fulfillment at the end of the day?

As I look through that list, I realize how much of what I read these days focuses on just these issues, e.g., don’t read email first thing in the morning, problems with managing conflict through email/chat/IM, research on how backlit screens disrupt sleep. We are sharing our new life management insights over Twitter, the blogosphere, and productivity books–together we are creating a new knowledge base.

However, I am also aware of how uneven the knowledge dissemination can be and how much students, colleagues, friends, family, and for those of us doing clinical practice, our clients, may vary in how much they know or have even thought about these issues. And I wonder about how kids will learn what they need to know as they negotiate the world if the adults in their lives lag behind (or dismiss) the technologies they are interacting with.

Paradoxically, at the same time our new technologies are challenging us to learn new skills, there are some very old skills that are becoming increasingly relevant. Mindfulness (being fully present in the here and now while also having awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings) is the one that most strongly comes to mind as I review our current challenges. In living mindfully, I am able to observe and learn about how my choices and habits affect me, therefore I can learn from watching myself interact with the world. Perhaps this is the skill we need to be really focusing on as well as the skill we need to teach our children.

What skills or knowledge would you add to the lists I have started?

Written by Nancy Smyth

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Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, MSW, LCSW is professor and at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, as well as a licensed clinical social worker. She has over 30 years experience in social work, primarily in the areas of trauma and addictions. She's an occasional blogger interested in the human connections made in digital environments. technology and social work, and the impact of technology on our identities, families and society.

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