Research on the “new generations” that have lived in an online world their entire lives is extensive. Those of us who didn’t grow up with the internet until teen years or adulthood are intrigued by those who have known no different. We worry about what it is doing to their brains, social skills, and the like. Mostly it is a fear of the unknown, just like any new concept.
With that said, at an initial session, I always ask my teenage patients as to how many real, live, in-person friends they have in contrast to how many online, never-met friends they have. Parents are often concerned that their children do not have real friends, especially if their child is dubbed a “gamer.” Ask any teenager and they are quick to defend that online friends are real friends, even if the friend lives across the world and they have never met.
We know based on 80 years of research that teenagers are meant to be quite social beings. This is the developmental stage where friends and their social life outplays time with family. They are chronically asking to go out, be with their friends, and are texting and Snapchatting friends all hours of the night… if you are lucky. This is also the era of major segregation in social groups due to online bullying and instantaneous outing of anything “weird” someone has done. Much like politics, it can lose a teen’s social footing in the blink of an eye.
Let’s say your 14-year-old is entering the high school phase—final years of school. They may know a few or no one in their new school. How do we help them create a good social group? How do we help them to not become instantly outed or disliked because of a normal, awkward teen moment? The key is to be involved in their life and push them to be involved in the real world.
Here are 3 ways to teach your teen social skills in an online world:
I remember entering high school (not going to answer how long ago) and my father requiring me to participate in one activity, a sport or a club. I got to pick. I initially picked cross country thinking it was cross country skiing. Don’t judge now—we lived in northern Illinois, so it was a possibility. However, if I had thought it through, the sport started in August. When the coach called me to see if I wanted to run with them, I was like, “What?! No.” Needless to say, I dropped out before school even started.
I told my dad about the experience, and I figured I tried, so he would be understanding. Nope, he continued to press me. I subsequently joined tennis. Was I good? Not really, but I had fun. I then went on to join too many activities to count because tennis segued me into making friends and them asking me to join this or that with them. As much as I resented my dad at the time and thought he was a social nightmare who was determined to make my life difficult, he was right (gulp).
Why do I share this story? Because we need to push our children to get involved in their school community. Nowadays, there are many clubs and activities they can do that are not sports-related. If they don’t find something they like, they can start a club, too. I require all of my teen patients who are entering high school to bring the list of offered activities to my office. Then, we brainstorm which ones they want to join. They probably resent me, but the ones that do join an organization are much happier as the school year progresses, and they experience far less anxiety at the beginning of subsequent school years.
Teach Them How to Make Friends and How to Be One
I also work with them on how to interact with their peers and build friendships. We discuss ways to start a conversation: noticing something about another person and complimenting them, asking if someone understood a concept in class or heard what the teacher said, offering to help each other with homework, etc. We work on building confidence when they walk into those big school doors so that they are more attractive to future friends. We process how to follow up afterward by saying, “Hi,” or smiling with eye contact in the hallways … eventually asking for a number so that they can text one other or use an app, like Snapchat or TikTok, to communicate. We discuss what to put on their social media so that they don’t appear “weird,” while also maintaining their self-respect and individuality.
As your teen is preparing to leave the nest, which is what high school is really about, it is important that you continue to stay involved in his or her life. One of the greatest gifts you can create for your child is to make your home the “cool place” to hang out. Have the snacks they like. Set up a room in your house for them to hang out, play video games, watch a Netflix series, or YouTube. Get to know the friends. Randomly pop in the room with food and drinks and chat with them.
Be real. Listen to the tough stuff they are dealing with: other friends, prospective people to date, their parents, their siblings. Be a sounding board and share that your teen years were tough, too. Relate to them. Why? Because this is how you can gain a pulse on what your child is dealing with. This is the way you can have a positive influence on your child and his or her social circle. You also may be the only person in that child’s life who listens and may make that child feel as though he or she matters.
Now, here is the advice for which teens really hate me. It often requires a few therapy sessions after I give this advice to repair my relationship with a teenager, but I still give it. MONITOR THAT DEVICE. Yes, if I could write it in font size 72, I would. Just to ensure you get it: monitor that device.
Make sure every password your child has, you have. Look at the screenshots, their apps, hidden apps, and the like. Watch any and all training on the hidden Instagrams and Snapchats your child may have. Read the articles that the police post about the different acronyms and apps teens are using. Why should you invade your child’s privacy? Because their life might depend on it.
The last part of the brain to fully develop is the frontal lobe. We know that area is responsible for key functions when a child has a phone, tablet, or any device that can transmit information instantaneously. The frontal lobe controls impulsive thoughts, behaviors, attention, concentration, speech and language production, forming memories, empathy, and reward-seeking behavior and thoughts. This part of the brain does not fully develop until someone reaches approximately 25 years old.
This is why I tell you to monitor that device. Your child is not yet able to fully comprehend the consequences of their choices in an adult way on that device. However, your child does get the concept (because they have been taught it since toddlerhood) that “Mom will kill me if I…” Set up the rules and expectations about what they can and can’t do on their phone before you hand it to them. Make a contract about the device and stick to it.
Ask any teenager and they’ll say the world’s worst punishment is losing their phone. Teach your child how to be responsible with the device by monitoring it. Be open with your teen that you are checking it. Explain that you are doing it for their safety (yes, in that moment you sound like your mother). When you see something that causes you concern, don’t jump down your teen’s throat, but rather start a dialogue and explain your concern. And, in response, listen to their thoughts as to why they did that. Work with them rather than screaming at them and shutting them down.
In doing this, you are modeling so many great lessons for your children. One, you are showing them that they are loved. Two, you are showing them how to handle these situations in a better way. Three, you are teaching them how to interact with authority in the future. All of these are necessary life skills for the road they are about to embark on very soon—adulthood.
Navigating teen years requires some grit and grace as a parent. You need to be firm in your expectations for your child, while offering grace for their blunders. Remember, their brain is still developing, much like when they were a toddler. Get into their world and expect them to create a “real world” because you believe they can do it. You’ve got this, Momma. Just a few more years—probably the most influential ones—that we can teach them these truths. You can do it!
You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: Sex Trafficking: Why Kids are at Risk and What You Can Do to Protect Them with Christy Ivie – 121!