Many of the problems online stem from the same root cause and if we don’t find a work around, we will endanger the long-term welfare of our children. I know that statement sounds extreme, but I believe that the root problem at the center of all the social media woes people like to blog about (cyber-bullying and the like) is one that is inhibiting our kids' basic psychosocial development in the years from 10-18.
At these stages, children/teens are developing many fundamental skills that allow them to understand and relate with their world. They are learning how to interpret social cues, how to offer accurate snapshot impressions of themselves, how to deal with interpersonal conflict/pain, and through all of this they are developing an understanding of who they are in the world.
Those tasks are not completed by reading a book or even by spending time in a therapist’s office. They are learned by interacting with people in the real world.
Kids go to school and make an offhand comment about a friend’s clothes. When they see their friend’s face fall, they realize that people can be hurt by offhand remarks about their appearance.
At another time while meeting someone new, they begin sharing about something too personal for a new acquaintance only to see the person squirm and walk away. They realize that it is important to begin getting to know people with less intense subjects.
Later, they are sitting with a group of friends and make a sexual comment only to see how uncomfortable most people are at that age with the subject, and they learn that sexuality is something more private and intimate.
These all happen best when they happen through non-mediated communication. Let me explain what I mean by that term. Every way that we engage with others that is not full-on face-to-face interaction is a mediated form of communication. If we are talking on skype, there is a screen and a lack of personal presence, if we are talking on the phone, we loose the visual cues. If we text, we loose the intonation cues. On and on.
With each successive level of mediation, we loose a lot of information. After all, who hasn’t had a friend read a text the wrong way and get offended?
In the world of social media, we generally loose another level of interaction: immediacy. This means that a person can log on to a social media platform, make a post, and hours later have a friend read it, get hurt by it, and go to sleep upset. By the time the friend got hurt, our original poster was watching an episode of their favorite show on Netflix.
The original poster has no idea that they hurt their friend, they did not get the immediate feedback so they could learn how those words affect people. In fact, by the time they receive any of that, they may have lost all memory of what was going on in their head when they made the post.
That is a problem because the more mediated the communication is during this crucial season of development, the less our kids are able to grow and learn how to live and be in this world.
So, we all throw our computers and iPhones away and ban our kids from engaging in social media, right? Nope, that could be as dangerous to our kids’ future as the opposite. Our world is moving more and more into making online a primary mode of communication, and in order to succeed in the future our kids need to be fluent in this language.
I think they're are a couple of first steps. I am sure there will be many more.
First, our kids need community of people monitoring their online interactions and helping them understand what is happening on the other side of the screen. They need parents and teachers and ministers who are engaging with them online AND in person to help them develop while engaging in this medium.
Second, we need to make sure we discuss social media implications when we are processing big ideas. At church we might say “How do you love your neighbor when you are on snapchat?” It needs to be part of how we process all our life so that we help plant those initial concepts in the minds of our kids.
Last, we need more personal interaction. That means when we see kids studying over Skype with a friend, we offer to get the friend and bring them over. It also means encouraging our kids to put their phones down when they are with friends, or if they have to have it out, to share the experience with the person sitting next to them.
It is a problem, but it is not an impossible problem. If we take time to think about what is going on and take some simple steps we might be able to succeed at only damaging our kids as much as our parent’s generation damaged us!