We’ve all seen it: A kid in a passive posture, device in hand – with all attention focused downward. Your child is immersed in a game or some other app. A full hour (or more) can pass without him even moving! Parents express their worry to me all the time that their kids will become addicted to their devices. They fear that kids will grow up disconnected, alone, and unhealthy. Kids’ social skills, they worry, are being shaped by their devices, and not in a good way. Because of this, today’s kids need us more than ever. Technology has made their world a lot more complicated than when we grew up. Smart phones, social media and group texts allow our kids more ways to be social, but with that first phone comes a steep learning curve.
In my experience, today’s kids spend a lot more time closely supervised and a lot less time playing outside on their own. Parents are much more involved in actively managing their children’s social lives until, at some point, they can’t. Rather than a slow buildup to navigating their social lives, many kids go from controlled, parent-organized playdates to managing their own devices and social lives with no training wheels and little mentorship. Starting in middle school, a habit of close parental involvement can present a huge challenge because kids are now, to a greater degree, left to their own resources to solve conflicts or negotiate other tricky terrain.
The good news is that there are ways to help kids learn the necessary social skills. Most kids, even very social ones, need some guidance in responsibly navigating the complex social interactions that happen via device-based communication. Every family will find slightly different challenges navigating this transition, but I believe that parents ?do possess the skills needed to help guide our kids. Yes, the devices may facilitate some negative behaviors. Or they may just make those behaviors more visible to adults – mostly by leaving a trail or creating “documentation.” But we can teach the positive behaviors instead, so that kids learn how to use their devices in a healthy way. When they do, it can make a positive impact on their lives—and yours.
How Kids Really Use Social Media
Parents often have some grasp of the way adults use social media, but sometimes they don’t really get what teens, tweens and even (sometimes) younger kids are doing in these spaces. Kids have different reasons for using different social platforms. When asked how kids choose different apps, each tween and teen I interviewed summed up some of the uses for various social applications. Here are some are their responses.
“Some apps are more for keeping in touch long term. Others are better for day-to-day, like making plans. Some are more about what you are doing right now. Facebook is about keeping in touch with people, having a conversation. Twitter is more like what you are doing at the moment,” said one girl.
Kids also text very differently than adults do. Many young texters (and kids newer to texting) are using the feature mainly as a way to stay connected after school via group texts. The initial excitement of group texting is hard for them to resist. While many adults use texting predominantly in a utilitarian way, kids don’t have as much pragmatic need. For them, it’s more about entertainment, keeping in touch without needing to get together, and about being included.
Tobias told me his first phone was not a big deal: “I was eleven when I got my first smartphone, I thought it was cool that I could have a phone. I used it to keep in touch with my friends. For Minecraft, my parents do limit how much I play games, but I can text as much as I want. My sister is a freshman [in high school], and I think she’s on her phone way more than me.”
Dani, an eighth grader, told me “social media is where you go after school to review the day’s “headlines,” to see who is doing what, get updates on relationships, (i.e., couples getting together or breaking up), or just view day-to-day minutiae. “At night, you’ll go on Instagram and see what everyone did that day. I follow about 1,200 people and about 1,200 people follow me.”
Discussing conflict, Maya, said, “Most people are nice, but it is good that people are watching out for subtweets—where it isn’t always ?directly mean, but it is pointing people toward something that happened, or something that might be not nice about someone. That’s mean too, in a way. Some people are pretty harsh, and other people just think, ‘Wow, this is interesting drama.’ What you put on the Internet is your choice, though.” What’s a subtweet? It is a tweet that indirectly refers to someone, not by name or twitter handle, often in a mocking or critical manner.
When Social Drama Starts
With or without personal devices or social media accounts, some social “drama” usually begins for kids as they move toward puberty. Sometimes, especially with gaming, issues can start before that, although that usually shows up more as simple conflict as opposed to what the kids call “drama.” While devices don’t cause the emotional turbulence, they can certainly exacerbate and record it.
What does social drama look like?
- Sharing embarrassing or incriminating pictures.
- Trying to start trouble between two friends.
- “Innocently” pointing out that someone unfollowed you.
- Grabbing another kid’s phone and sending out mean, stupid, or silly texts from that phone.
- Oblique references to someone who “shouldn’t really be on this group text” on a group text.
If such behavior presents itself as a negative, stressful factor in your child’s life, you may want to consider helping her plug into another community, scout group, or youth group. Also, it’s perfectly okay to unplug! Strategic offline time can be a salve to the chafing of everyday tech-induced issues. While I believe we want to foster positive use of technology, that doesn’t mean it needs to be a 24–7 pursuit. Breaks are good. They help us reset—and not just kids! So ask your child if she has seen other kids being mean in group texts or on social media. It happens all the time, so don’t be surprised at what your child reports. And most importantly, don’t overreact.
The most important insurance against your children having bad experiences is letting them know they can come to you. Even if they have done something they regret, they need to feel that they can talk to you about it. If kids don’t feel isolated, they are far less at risk. When you read stories of kids extorting one another you have to think about how isolated the victims felt. These kids felt that they “had to” do what the aggressor asked, even against their better judgment. We want to help our kids understand that someone who would try to extort you cannot be trusted. The more of yourself you give, the more power you give up, and the more vulnerable you are to continued harassment. This is a critical message to impart, because kids may end up in these situations and have no idea how to get out of them.
Social Interactions are a Skill
Ultimately, kids are learning social skills in these connected spaces. We want to be sure our kids aren’t obsessing about “likes” and how many followers they had. While the tyranny of “popularity” isn’t new, it has never been easier and more public to quantify your fans. As much as possible, parents should help kids focus on the quality of their friendships rather than their number!
As parents, we want to be sure they know when to move from texting or social media to a face-to-face interaction for important conversations, apologies, or more emotional or sensitive matters. They need to get practice with face-to-face as well as online communication. The good news is that kids still want to “be a good friend” and they still care deeply about their friends. As adults, we need to model the importance of being a good friend, online and off.
Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and the Founder of Raising Digital Natives. A frequent keynote speaker at conferences and schools worldwide, Heitner believes that digital natives want to do the right thing and need mentorship and modelling from adults.
This piece is part of a week-long series with tips for how parents can help their kids survive middle school. Check out some of the other posts about middle schooler's developing brians, how to survive social drama, navigating academics, a tear-jerker from NBC News Anchor Kate Snow, and the neurological reason why your middle schooler acts like a toddler. More to come each day this week!