Just How “Social” is Social Media?

Just How “Social” is Social Media?

Remember hanging out at the mall, after school, with your friends? Or calling them on the phone and talking for hours? According to the Child Mind Institute, while that might have seemed like wasted time, researchers suggest that those activities help teens develop valuable social skills. Speaking directly to another person is very different from communicating, via social media, on a computer or smart phone. And our teens are suffering for it.

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author states that “as a species we are very highly attuned to reading social cues. There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills. In a way, texting and online communicating—it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.” In her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age she explores how technology is actually fragmenting families and leaving our children, particularly our teens, lonely and with negative doubts about their own self-worth.

Learning how to make friends, and even more importantly how to keep friends, is a part of normative development. Making and maintaining friendships require some level of risk-taking. Social media removes the risk to a large degree, as well as the most intimate aspects of communication. Learning how to honestly convey your your feelings and how to be empathetic when hearing others' feelings is stunted when the conversation isn't happening in real time, face to face. And, as we are already well aware of, social media also presents a protective layer that allows a new degree of mean.

So what can be done? Experts say it starts with the parents. Curtailing your own use of technology (no phones at dinner, technology-free zone in the house) creates healthy boundaries. It also provides your teens with valuable opportunities to talk and ultimately helps to strengthen the parent-child bond.  By providing your child with access to you without the distractions of technology, Dr. Steiner-Adair says you avoid the "mini-moments of disconnect".

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