Childhood today looks a lot different than it did even 10 years ago. With the ever growing presence of technology, it’s all too easy for children to spend time alone in front of a screen, rather than interact with peers and friends. And unfortunately, this isolation can increase a child’s likelihood of suffering from anxiety and depression.
Feeling a sense of belonging is important for humans — and it’s something that starts to develop at an early age. According to Dr. Paul Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Mount Saint Mary College, childhood friendships play a critical role in improving kids’ stimulation, self-esteem, intimacy, and affection — all of which are important as children and young teens grow up.
Despite this, however, many parents still allow their children to spend a significant amount of time online. YouTube is the No. 1 brand among children, even ahead of iconic brands like Disney Channel, Lego, and Crayola. I’m not completely averse to YouTube — my daughter does enjoy using it sometimes — and I used to sit in front of the TV for hours on end when I was a kid, which isn’t so different. But children today don’t run into the “there’s nothing on” problem like I did. They have access to an endless stream of content.
As parents, we need to make sure that our kids have a proper balance of online time and friend time in order for them to develop socially. And no, that doesn’t mean you have to cut technology out of their lives. It can actually be used to help them form more meaningful connections with friends.
Offline Versus Online Interaction There isn’t a ton of available research on how children develop social skills during in-person interactions compared to online interactions. As a result, parents are often left to use their own intuition.
Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, explores this topic in her book “iGen.” She explains that people born after 1995 — the iGen, as she calls it — are the first to grow up with smartphones in hand. Social media, texting, and other forms of digital communication have replaced in-person activities, and members of iGen are spending less time in the real world. She suggests that this is perhaps why they’re experiencing record levels of anxiety and depression.
I don’t think we have enough research yet to make such a definitive claim when it comes to screen time and mental health, but where there’s smoke, there’s likely fire. In my opinion, the problem is that social media is not driven at all by actual relationships. Instead, these platforms make use of carefully refined algorithms that keep people coming back for more.
They’re designed with features that make scrolling an addictive habit and enable advertisers to put relevant content in front of the right people at the right time. There’s not much authenticity there at all. This is why I worry when I read reports about children using these platforms at a young age.
On the other hand, technology has enabled us to interact with each other using things like FaceTime and games. There’s no substitute for in-person play and interaction — we should encourage our kids to do that as much as possible — but it’s clear that technology isn’t all bad.
How to Find a Balance
Technology can do amazing things to connect people. My young daughter, for instance, has been able to maintain old friendships, even after we moved far away. When I was a kid, if someone moved out of town, that was the last I heard from him or her (until Facebook let us reconnect decades later, ironically). To truly benefit kids, technology needs to be used to form real connections with close friends and family.
• Using technology to bond with family. Watching an endless stream of YouTube videos isn’t ideal, but there are benefits to sitting down with your kids to view content that they’re interested in. It gives you the chance to both monitor the platform and learn about what they like to do online. This can serve as a launchpad to meaningful conversations about their interests, fears, and ambitions.
This is an important tactic to keep in mind when your kids are old enough to start using social media, too. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat all use elements of social validation. Instead of leaving kids to their own devices (literally), log on together and talk about the photos, videos, and other information that’s being shared.
• Using technology to connect with friends. Age-appropriate video games with social elements (like live chat) can be a great way for kids to share interests and learn team-building and problem-solving skills. Games that are recommended for kids younger than 13 must adhere to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule — or COPPA — regulations and, therefore, will have tools that parents can use to keep things safe (e.g., email verification, notifications, and permissions). It’s a relatively hands-off way to let your kids interact using technology.
As parents, we’re always going to be on the lookout for potential dangers and threats to our children’s safety, many of which can stem from technology. But if we put forth a solid effort to educate, manage, and monitor how kids use it, there’s no reason it shouldn’t help their social development.
Sean Herman is the founder of Kinzoo. Kinzoo is driven by our mission to create secure spaces for kids and their families to stay close — no matter where they are. Sean is a father of two, an entrepreneur, and a business leader.