Life Skills for the Digital Age

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 addition, 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, the skill we need to teach our children.

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

Photo courtesy of  digitalbob8

19 thoughts on “Life Skills for the Digital Age

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  2. I enjoyed reading this blog post — a like-minded person!

    Very thoughtful questions. I would add, “What skills or tools do we need in order to disconnect or unplug?” Self-discipline, time-management? Planning our Internet time? Using an online timer? Doing periodic “tech cleanses”? Another question is, “What communication/social skills do we need in order to respond to situations where we feel hurt by others’ use of technology?”

    Insightful exploration. I’d like to share it in my blog, with proper mention and link to your site. Yes, a “true feeling of fulfillment” is what we’re after!

    PS – I also work a lot with trauma survivors.


    • I love your additions, Marga, and I’d be honored if you mentioned the post in your blog. Just checked out your blog and it looks very interesting to me: “Consciously Shaping the Impact of Technology on Relationships”

      I looked for a way to be added to an email update list for your blog–didn’t see one, so I subscribed through Google Reader.


  3. Nancy, great post! I especially like how you list such important questions, and then leave us to answer them, or perhaps more accurately meditate on them.

    Disconnecting is definitely something in terms of technology that we will be learning as a new skill.

    I also think the mind/body balance is important. In addition to regular sleep habits I think the balance of exercise and fitness is key. This includes designing our workspace for the option to stand rather than equate computing with sitting; and intentionally getting some physical fitness daily.


    • Thanks, Mike! I think these questions need lots of pondering, and I would guess that many of them might have different answers for different people. Applying the principle of mind/body balance makes a great deal of sense to me–it’s certainly a good principle for general living, but I think it’s especially important in guiding a life that interfaces a lot with technology. And understanding the impact of technology on our bodies is a new knowledge frontier (e.g., the most recent research on the impact of backlit screens on sleep patterns), so the mind/body balance will continue to evolve.


  4. Great post. I have also been thinking about many of these issues and I think it is something that is ever developing in terms of skill bases. Perhaps it is a recycling of some of the skills we have around coping, managing and orientating ourselves in the world but we have to adapt to new methods and means of communication. I know you’ve mentioned it but I think lines of privacy and understanding of the impact of the written word as opposed to discussion that takes place orally is crucial. Text can lack some of the subtleties and often lies on the screen for longer than the spoken word might remain in the memories. In other words, the importance of the ‘erase’ button/strokes! Posts can be deleted, Tweets can be deleted and facebook statuses can be deleted. Sometimes I think people forget that!


    • Yes, the delete button can be very useful….unless Google has already indexed something 😦

      I like your point about communication, that every means requires adaptation. This is very much the premise of Hamlet’s Blackberry, by the way–Powers follows innovations in communication technology (oral to written word, written word to printed word, etc.) and discusses the changes that were then needed in society and the lessons learned.


  5. “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.”

    This is very important because the best teacher of social skills to kids are their own parents. Parents will need to have a good relationship with their children before they could engage them in conversation about the use of technology and safety on the internet. Especially, with preteens, it would be necessary for parents to understand how to use web applications. Parents can teach their preteens about the importance of privacy, and the use of social skills, while using applications like Facebook and Myspace, Twitter, email, IM, gaming, etc. How to manage conflicts? How to respond to a bully? Parents must know for themselves how to use features that would allow preteens and teens to create safe boundaries while interacting on the internet. How to negotiate friendships (Who to friend? When to consider defriending/blocking? etc.), discern when a post is inappropriate or hurtful (using hide/delete for posts), and the importance of privacy when interacting with friends (using lists for different levels of privacy etc.). Most importantly, parents need to understand and teach their teens the possible ramifications that may occur in the future (negative impact on school/college/work) if they choose not to use these skills.


    • Well said, Treva! All of those skills and knowledge are important. And I would add that parents also need to understand how and why these applications are important to their kids–what role they play. In the cyberbullying podcast what I learned is that teens often don’t disclose cyberbullying to their parents because they are afraid adults will respond by taking away their cell phones, effectively cutting them off from their social networks. I think this communicates the importance of parents not just understanding the “how tos” of the technology, but the value/context/meaning of the technology for their kids. If, instead, kids pick up that parents have a dismissive attitude about their technology, they will not see parents as allies or resources if they run into trouble with technology.

      Thanks for expanding the discussion around the parenting issues in particular, because I think they are really critical.


  6. Great questions. As I have begun teaching this year I have found myself thinking more about this and what role I have as an educator in shaping social work students. I’m reminded of the quote by Marshall McLuhan who said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” I think it is incredibly important to “Disconnect” and I struggle in articulating how it should be done best let alone actually doing it. Some of my ideas have been touched upon in the comments and now I am getting more inspired to blog about this myself 🙂

    As an educator though, I am also reminded of a talk by Mike Wesch from Kansas State University where he discusses teaching students not just to be Knowledgeable but Knowledge-able. You can see the video here and this is something I have been striving to implement in small ways. Thanks for the blog idea and what a wonderful post.


    • I don’t think I’ve heard that McLuhan quote before, thanks for sharing it, it’s so appropriate! I look forward to reading a blog post of yours to continue this dialogue–I hope you’ll come back here and link it to this post in another comment so people can follow the “thought train.”

      That video looks interesting. I’ll take a look at it when I am up to spending an hour in front of the computer watching a video 😉 OR you could blog about that, too 🙂


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  10. Nancy, today I mentioned to Dr. Ellen Weber that you are a “mindguide.” Now that I read this post I can see even more depth as to why I think this way after our session with you and your faculty yesterday. We need to think of virtual and real time skills we still need to develop so we can be leaders who use mindful approaches for people with whom we work, clients and children.


    • Thinking of myself as a “mindguide” is a whole new perspective for me. Thanks so much for sharing your insights about how you see me.

      I very much enjoyed the workshop that you and Ellen Weber facilitated for us. It’s interesting to explore what new leadership skills might be for this digital age. I think that the brain-powered perspective that MITA brings a set of innovative strategies to the leaders in the 21st century.


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