What if I don’t want to be tethered together?

In Alone Together by Sherry Turkle there is a chapter titled “Tethered Together” which looks at the links we, as people, establish with the help of technology. However, it goes beyond this look and further evaluates what the effects of this technologically established links are and mean in our lives. One of the relationships she evaluates in this chapter is that of the parent and the child. Her claim is that because of recent developments in technology, such as cell phones and their overwhelming presence in our lives, the feeling of freedom gained from the device is an illusion.

Many preteens are given a cell phone in acknowledgement of their growing independence from the family. As children grow older they spend more time outside of the family unit as they participate in extracurricular activities at their school or with their friends over weekends. Parent and child agree that ownership of a cell phone is consent to explore those new relationships and activities more freely. However, Turkle argues this is not what occurs. She argues that ultimately this device restricts the freedom sought. Cell phones create a portable link between parent and child that in theory is operational around the clock. Thus, Turkle cites admissions from parents that cell phone create additional worry when the device goes unanswered. The children, obligated to answer whenever the device may ring, is left unable to transition into independence. Thus a link that is often severed as children actually continues through their teenage years and then into their young adult lives. During class discussion many of us recognized this feeling of being tethered together as a legitimate aspect of our lives.

At least this is true in the United States. Is it inevitable? I don’t think so. Nearly eighteen months ago I was introduced through mutual friends to a Chinese student also attending the Ohio State University. Through frequent contact Lynn and I have become good friends and roommates. Since our friendship has begun Lynn is constantly fascinated by American relationships with their parents. I spoke (and still do) with both of my parents on a daily basis, often at the same time via text message, and also on the phone. Lynn, at the time a second year Computer Science Engineering major, speaks with her parents about once a month via her iPhone or maybe a Chinese version of the Skype application. She spent this past summer traveling Europe for one month, spent an additional three weeks in Africa on a service trip, and then joined my family for a vacation in Virginia Beach. At no point during her decision making process did Lynn consider consulting her parents about her plans. She planned her summer, booked her tickets, and by her account, had an amazing summer. If Lynn didn’t have the time or was otherwise occupied, her parents were satisfied with her saying as much. She tells me this is typical of Chinese families. Though the Chinese have access to the same technologies as us, why do they use it so much differently than what Americans are reporting for themselves?

Some may find they don’t want to only speak to their parents during brief spells between their adventures. The question is, how does everyone find that balance for themselves and then make peace with their families over that balance?

1. Lynn Li

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