Our Most Powerful Technology is Listening

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Our Most Powerful Technology is Listening

Easing our children’s loneliness by listening well

By Sue-Anne Wu | 20 November 2020

As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? – Sherry Turkle

As parents, we love the ease of technology. It allows us keep in touch with our kids – instantly. We can even track where they are at any given point in time!

At the same time, technology is also the bane of our lives. Our teenagers are tethered to their mobile devices and our younger ones are constantly badgering us to play the latest handphone games.

Connected but alone

Yet despite being constantly connected, with their followers on Instagram or TikTok and their multiple chat groups on WhatsApp, youths today experience a growing sense of loneliness and isolation.

Your teens may feel the need to constantly present the best version of themselves – with perfect shots (that 1 filtered shot out of 30) and witty, off the cuff comments (that have been carefully typed, edited, then typed again). In the process of curating this “self” for the online community, they become less and less in touch with themselves.

When they feel upset or excited, our children immediately turn to their “automatic audience” by posting online. But one-word responses, stickers and GIFs don’t provide the acknowledgement of feelings or the reflecting back that is necessary to feel connected to others.

In unfortunate cases, online posts could be misunderstood and devolve into name-calling or result in friends “ghosting”1 them.

“No one is listening to me”

Many of these online relationships leave our children with a pervasive sense that “no one is listening to me”.

The essence of good listening is empathy – when we enter into the experience of the other person.

However, many online posts and communications are fuelled by a preoccupation with self – how do I look, how do I appear – even when commenting on someone else’s post.

Without being heard and acknowledged, our children are unable to clarify their thoughts and feelings; nor can they build up their sense of self.

Because they aren’t being listened to, no matter how much our children text and post, they may end up feeling isolated and empty, which then leads them to swipe, tap and click all the more. But the problem persists.

Listening well, in person and online

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable. – David W. Ausburger

Research tells us that being listened to helps our children feel worthwhile and appreciated; it helps to build a secure self, by allowing them to clarify their thoughts and feelings and endowing them with self-respect as a unique individual. This builds the foundation for them to approach other relationships with confidence.

If we listen to our children well, we can help them to listen to others well, connect better, and harness technology to build relationships.

We need to manage our own use of technology so that we can teach our children to do the same. Here are some suggestions that we can try:

  1. Put our phones out of sight for conversations IRL2

    A study by psychologists at the University of Essex suggests that the mere presence of a phone on the table or in our hands – even if it’s silent – makes those sitting around the table feel more disconnected and disinclined to talk about anything important or meaningful, knowing that if they do, they will probably be interrupted.

    Make it a habit to put our phones away, out of sight, before dinner or when a child starts sharing a story. If they are interrupting something important, try prompting them: “Hold that thought, give me a minute to finish up then put my phone away so that I can listen to what you have to say.”

  2. Give our children our full attention

    Dr Michael Nichols in The Lost Art of Listening says it best: “We fool ourselves into thinking that we can do more than one thing at a time. The truth is that we just end up doing one thing after another poorly.”

    Don’t try to multi-task. We do not “save time” by checking our emails as our child is recounting to us their day – we end up doing both poorly.

    We should give our children our full attention even when we converse online. “I’d rather text than talk” is a very real sentiment among our teenage children. Let’s make it a point when texting them to give our fullest attention. It may be a 1-minute WhatsApp chat or 10 minutes. Reply them, wait a bit for a reply and if they don’t reply, just leave it for the moment. If several topics come up in the conversation, take time to address them one by one.

    Let’s try not to weave in and out of different chat groups and scroll through different windows at the same time.

  3. Try using “Tell Me More” and “I Hear You...”

    In many of our WhatsApp messages to our children, we are trying to transfer information (“I left you some money on your desk for your allowance.”) or extract information (“What time will you be home?”).

    Let’s change the nature of our conversations, try using open-ended questions to build conversations with our children and show them we are interested and listening.

    By using phrases like “tell me more” or reflecting their feelings to them, we give them the space to share and we give ourselves a greater capacity to truly listen and understand.
    Son: Just got my exam results back. 😡
    Mum: I hear you. It sounds like you aren’t feeling happy?
    Daughter: School is so boring today. 😴
    Dad: I hear you find school is boring. Tell me more.

Our children may not always share their innermost feelings, but we should always leave the door open for deeper conversations to take place.

There is so much potential in technology for us to connect more and to listen to one another better. We have seen how WhatsApp and Zoom have allowed us to still stay in touch with people near and far during Phase One of Circuit Breaker measures.

Let’s use this technology to build deeper relationships with our children by listening to them and connecting heart-to-heart.

1. Ghosting is having someone that you believe cares about you, whether it be a friend or someone you are dating, disappear from contact without any explanation at all and ignoring any attempts on your part to reach out.
2. In real life

© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


Sue-Anne Wu is a nature seeker and avid reader. She manages her 5 rambunctious boys (aged 1, 4, 7, 9 and 39) with a healthy dose of optimism and several shots of coffee.

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