A quick Google search finds tons of articles with titles like, “Does Using Social Media Make You Lonely?” and “How Smartphones Are Making Kids Unhappy” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” It’s enough to make any parent want to answer, “Never” each time their tween asks when they will be able to get their own phone. But take a little time to read more than the clickbait-y headlines and the articles present a much more complicated and nuanced picture.
It turns out that yes, kids are using smartphones and staring into screens far more than they should be. And yes, walk into a room full of teens and sometimes it will be completely silent as they are all sitting together but communicating via their phones. But a recent article in Psychology Today cites a study that considers “the relationship between the number of Facebook friends and social adjustment in college freshmen and seniors.” It found that the freshmen with large numbers of friends were less socially adjusted because those friends were more likely to be friends from their former life. By contrast, seniors with large numbers of Facebook friends were networking with current friends and were more socially adjusted. So it appears, the question we should be asking is not, “Does social media make kids lonely?” but, “How are kids using social media?”
There is evidence that kids who are more likely to be socially awkward in person will be just as socially awkward on line. These are kids who will more likely indulge in social media “snacking” or browsing others’ pages but not commenting or engaging. This leads to the illusion of connection but no true interaction. These kids are also more likely to be susceptible to comparisons along with an inability to discern the truth from the Fakebooking. Listen, we get it. It’s sometimes hard for their parents to make this distinction too.
So, have smartphones made kids more lonely? Psychologist Jean Twenge says yes. In an article in The Atlantic she asserts that her research shows that “there is a connection between spending a lot of time on social media and loneliness.” She asserts that the patterns of loneliness, anxiety and depression in teens began to increase in 2012, coincidentally the same year that “the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent”.
Twenge says that though kids are physically safer in this generation, spending more time in their bedrooms than in cars or at parties, psychologically, the rise of smartphones and social media in tandem has created a potential crisis for kids of what she has dubbed, “iGen”. Social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram Snapchat contribute to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and a belief that other kids have it better or easier than they do.
Screens and social media also contribute to sleep-deprivation, depression and suicidal thoughts. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are kids who are predisposed to loneliness and depression more likely to spend more time online? Or does spending time online lead to feelings of loneliness and depression? It’s hard to say.
Dr. Stacey Cohen-Meissner, a licensed psychologist in private practice in Tenafly says it’s complicated. And she says that social media isn’t all bad. It’s a place where kids who are anxious or socially awkward can make connections in a way that is more comfortable for them. But, she warns, social media shouldn’t completely take the place of face-to-face interaction. Kids should still be spending time with peers. In fact, research shows that being in the same space as peers, even if kids aren’t directly interacting, produces endorphins which are natural anti-depressants.
So, back to the original question: How are kids using social media? More importantly, how can parents help kids create a digital life that is reasonable, responsible, and social and expansive?
Be the parent. Dr. Meissner also says that the two things kids need are boundaries and love. Though they seem so old, our teens are still children and even highly intelligent kids make poor choices. They still look to us to teach and guide them. And who will they learn from if not their parents?
What can parents do?
- Monitor devices and set time limits. But unless your child has given you reason to believe that they need closer supervision, Dr. Meissner says that a weekly check in is probably sufficient.
- Be available. Hate to tell you this, folks but that means you’re going to have to put down your phone too. No falling down the scroll hole on Facebook, no texting with your bestie. Put the phone down, concentrate on your kids and communicate. Ask your child how certain posts make them feel. Make sure that if they are spending a lot of time gaming with strangers, they are also spending time with people they know. Help them navigate in real life.
- Encourage connection through a club, a hobby, a team or a volunteer position.
- Help your child with their inner monologue. Teach them how to overcome disappointing or uncomfortable social interactions by visualizing putting those experiences in a box on a shelf. Reassure them and tell them we all feel awkward at times.
- Teach anxious kids to slow down and take a breath where the period would go at the end of a sentence. This will give them time to think about what they are going to say before they say it.
Talk. And then talk some more. Galit Breen, blogger, author and digital parenting expert has spent the past several years developing ways that parents can allow our kids to go online (because really, what’s our choice?) but still be safe. In her Tedx talk, "Raising A Digital Kid Without Having Been One", Breen points out the conversations we aren’t having with our kids about digital citizenship because no one ever had them with us. She suggests that though we can’t teach our kids to be bully proof, we can teach them how not to be the bullies themselves.
What can parents do?
Have “short, direct, repeated, ongoing conversations” with our kids on topics such as:
- The difference between intent and impact and how it’s sometimes difficult to discern tone in the written word
- How loud and permanent the internet is – we need to constantly remind our kids that their digital footprints will never be erased
- There is no such thing as online privacy
- The difference between fighting issues and fighting people
- The fact that on the other side of every human interaction is a real human being
Have some perspective. One of the biggest issues kids grapple with these days is FOMO (fear of missing out). They check their insta feed and see their friends sharing a smoothie bowl, or photos from a party they didn’t know about. Or they get snapchatted by a few buddies doing something fun. It’s inevitable, but it hurts all the same. (And it doesn’t get easier. It still hurts even when we’re middle aged!)
Maggie DiPasquale, Modern Mentor and wellness resource for girls recently wrote a blog entitled, “Everyone is Lying on Social Media and So Am I” about how the stories we see online usually document the best part of someone’s day. Contrast those posts with the fact that we’re viewing those stories during a slow or down part of our day and our lives become understandably drab in comparison. It is always a bummer when I look at the beach pics a friend posted while I am folding laundry in my freezing basement!
What can parents do? Maggie has several suggestions:
- Remind your child that what they see is never the full story – people can pretend to be whomever and whatever they want online
- Encourage your child to protect their story. Not everyone needs to know everything about them.
- Recognize your child’s feelings. Acknowledge the hurt they are feeling and let them work through their sadness before suggesting they “find someone else to hang out with” or “get back out there” or “shake it off”.
- Suggest that they get the full story before they construct a narrative in their head that isn’t true
- Find your child a person, a mentor, an older relative, a neighbor who is older and can lend an ear but also give some perspective
- Talk with your child about the culture of nonchalance that rewards people who seem to care the least.
Make the technology work for them. Two years ago, after experiencing bullying as a middle schooler, teen Natalie Hampton developed Sit with Us, an app that allows users to find a place to sit at lunch. Teens can sign up to be ambassadors for the Sit with Us app which means they will post open lunch invitations on the app so anyone who doesn’t have a lunch table to sit at will know they will be welcomed by the Sit with Us kids.
What can parents do?
If your kid has trouble finding someone to sit with at lunch have them check to see whether there is a Sit with Us club at their school. And if your kid is one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have an issue with sitting alone at lunchtime, ask them whether they’d be willing to become an ambassador.
Go old school. Loneliness and disconnection have also been mentioned as two of the many factors that can cause kids like the Parkland shooter to commit violent or deadly acts. So how might we identify this risk sooner? A solution was proposed by Glennon Doyle Melton, creator of momastery.com, in an issue of Reader’s Digest. The article, titled “One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop School Shootings – and It’s Not About Guns” has been making the rounds because of this simple strategy. Doyle Melton describes how at the end of every week, her child’s teacher asks the class to write down the names of four children with whom they would like to sit the following week. The teacher, it turns out, is looking for the lonely kids. The ones who are going unnoticed, or who can’t make connections with other kids. The kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Sometimes, going old school and using the powers of observation and personal communication makes all the difference.
What can parents do?
If you like this article, forward it on to your teacher or principal. Or, if your kid is the one who often has the gang over at their house, ask them to do this exercise and see if you can identify any patterns.