A Speech-Language Pathologist’s Thoughts on Digital Zombies and Semantics

A Speech-Language Pathologist’s Thoughts on Digital Zombies and Semantics

My buddy and I were out to dinner a few evenings ago. As we were sitting at our table enjoying some delicious cheeseburgers (I love Five Guys Burgers, just in case you were wondering), we couldn’t help but notice this one table across the restaurant – the one with the father and his presumably 8 or 9 year old son. What drew our attention to that table was the fact that they were both zombies. And no, they weren’t eating brains. Not THAT kind of zombie. They were, what I like to say, digital zombies.

Digital zombies?

My definition of a digital zombie is a person who is just so obsessed with his or her digital device that he or she doesn’t even seem alive! The individual just mindlessly looks at the digital device. As glassy eyes stare deep into the screen, that person isn’t talking to anyone. He or she would rather look at the device than engage in communication with whoever else is also in the room. It’s crazy! It’s bananas! It’s such a shame.


So here we have two people out to dinner and no communication is being exchanged. Dad is tap tapping away on his iPhone and his son is swipe swiping away on his iPad (I think the son was playing one of those Fruit Ninja games?). They both fit the digital zombie criteria to a T: mindlessly looking at the device, glassy eyes, neither one of them talking.

“Jeez dad, put your phone away and talk to your son.”

My buddy mentioned to me how he believed that the father should put away the phone and talk to his son. I wholeheartedly agreed. But there was something about my buddy’s statement that I kept thinking about. “Talk to your son.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about the “talk to your son” statement sounded off to me.

It wasn’t until a few days later that it hit me.

Warning: this is going to sound like a bit of a semantics game, but bare with me. You know how we both said that the father should, “talk TO his son?” Well, what about if instead we said that the father should talk WITH his son?

Talk to children VS. Talk with children

Don’t you just love discussions about the meaning and interpretation of words? I sure do! So this is the reason I wanted to dig deep into the words TO and WITH. Here’s why I think saying, “we need to talk WITH our children” is better than saying, “we need to talk TO our children.” Take this example: let’s mix it up a bit and look at the following pair of sentences that doesn’t mention talking, but mentions playing:

I’m going to play TO my child.

I’m going to play WITH my child.

To me, the first example with the TO sounds like a musical performance. Like, if I had a guitar (and I do have a guitar) and I was actively playing a song while my child was passively listening to my song. That would be me playing TO my child. To me, that scenario seems one-sided. I would be doing all of the playing and my child would be doing all the listening. Or in other words, I would be doing all the “talking” and my child would be doing all the listening. There’s little opportunity for a true back-and-forth to occur between the two of us with that play TO example.

Now, let’s think about the second sentence.

If we wanted to keep the same music and guitar scenario going, that WITH sentence seems to imply that my child and I both have guitars and the two of us are jamming out together. To me, that scenario seems like there’s give-and-take. I might do some louder strums for a bit while my child does some softer strums. Then, my louder strums might temporarily decrease in volume to make room for my child’s louder strums. Can you see (or hear) the back-and-forth in that WITH sentence? In my opinion, since I am playing WITH my child, it seems like we are BOTH “talking” to each other, not just myself “talking.” This illustrates how the WITH sentence seems far from one-sided. It’s two-way, all the way.

So, what’s the purpose of this blog post?

First off, this blog post was a lot of me thinking out loud. I suppose I wanted to type out the reasoning why I plan on choosing to be a bit more careful with the words that I use when encouraging people to engage in active communication. I think WITH works better than TO. Plain and simple. We need to talk WITH our children, not TO our children. We need to communicate WITH each other, not TO each other. Ya feel me? So in the future, that’s what I’m going to do, use WITH instead of TO.

Secondly, I suppose I’m using this blog post as a way for me to check myself, with regards to digital etiquette. Because here’s the thing: you know how I mentioned the whole “digital zombie” thing at the beginning? And you know how I was all like, “they weren’t talkin’ at all because they were just too interested in their digital devices and it was crazy and yada yada?” Well, I’m no saint. I’ve also been a digital zombie before. Many, many times before. So I need to make sure that I practice what I preach. Therefore, in the future I’m going to remind myself to not be a digital zombie. I’m going to remind myself that whatever it is that is on my phone, it can wait. When I’m with someone else, especially at a restaurant, I’m going to talk WITH him or her and not mindlessly look at my device, all glassy eyed. We will be in the moment WITH each other. We will talk WITH each other.

In closing . . .

Let’s not be digital zombies. Instead, let’s be in-the-moment humans who embrace in-the-moment communication. So remember, when we work with the students on our caseload, let’s talk WITH them more often, and talk TO them much less. To me, that makes more sense. And I know that at the end of the day, it’s all semantics, but I guess that’s one of the reasons why I became a school-based speech-language pathologist – my love for having discussions about the meaning and interpretations of words that we used every single day. Fun!

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