Remember when best friends passed notes in class and talked for hours on the phone after arriving home from school?
Fast forward to today and you’ll see students texting each other after school (and sometimes during school), tweens interacting on Snapchat, or preschoolers engrossed in an iPad game on a playdate.
The technological opportunities are numerous and everywhere, but what happens to kids’ interpersonal skills – their ability to effectively communicate with others – when they are in front of so many screens each day?
Immersion in Technology
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “…the average 8-10 year old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media, and older children and teens spend more than 11 hours per day.” The AAP goes on to state that, “About 75% of 12 to 17 year olds own cell phones, and nearly all teenagers text.”
With all this time using various types of technology, kids spend less time face to face with one another or with their families.
Difficulty Making Eye Contact
Screen time in the form of texting on smart phones, playing Angry Birds on an iPad, or perusing YouTube videos has become the norm for most kids and their families. But there are downsides to this lifestyle. A potential consequence is lack of eye contact, a skill still highly valued in mainstream American society.
Kids are finding it more difficult to look their conversation partner in the eye when speaking to them, especially with the lure of a cell phone in hand or back pocket. With fewer opportunities to interact without technological distractions, kids’ interpersonal skills are becoming lackluster.
Skewed View of Conflict
Another issue surrounding immersion in technology involves a skewed perspective of how interpersonal conflict can develop. Kids quickly learn they can be much braver through a text message or on a Facebook wall than through a conversation in person.
They can break up or hurl insults via texts, start rumors on social media such as Twitter, or send scathing emails– without having to experience the intended target’s facial expressions, nonverbal gestures, or immediate verbal response. This not only sets the tone for cyberbullying, but some kids can have a difficult time differentiating between their virtual world and real life.
Further, some kids will become detached to the point of lacking empathy skills. Kids usually play an active role in creating their own conflict, and many are not certain how to resolve conflict that plays out in a technological world. They don’t realize posting an inappropriate picture on Instagram, for example, can have dire consequences, or that insulting a friend on his or her Facebook wall creates murky dimensions in friendship dynamics.
Kids are often unprepared to deal with the social, mental, and emotional consequences that are common with such choices.
Lack of Basic Communication Skills
Less dramatic, but also of importance, involves many kids’ lack of basic conversation skills. Cell phones, for example, are sometimes used as an avoidance strategy and, for some kids, their phone becomes a source of obsession and compulsive checking.
According to the Pew Research Center, “…half of American teenagers-defined in the study as ages 12 through 17 –send 50 or more text messages a day and that one-third send more than 100 a day. Two thirds of the texters surveyed by the center’s Internet and American Life Project said they were more likely to use their cell phones to text friends than call them.”
When kids are immersed in text conversations, they miss chances to develop the art of small talk, maneuver awkward pauses, take conversational turns, and read nonverbal cues. In addition, many kids are so distracted by incoming texts or checking fresh news feeds, they, ultimately, are not fully present with those around them. So where do kids learn this behavior?
Adults as Role Models
This behavior seems to reflect society as a whole, but adults are also quite attached to their devices.
Without directly meaning to, parents often reinforce and model poor technology etiquette: Mom and Dad text and scroll when kids are talking to them, they check and answer email at kids’ sporting events, and post status updates at the dinner table.
Kids see their parents purchase groceries while talking on the phone without acknowledging the cashier or even making eye contact. They observe their parents texting at the movie theater, and perhaps while driving. Consequently, this lack of presence can lead to a decrease in kids’ communication skills and potentially compromise the parent/child relationship.
It’s difficult for some people to remember what life was like before the advent of the smart phone. After all, people use this device to browse the Internet, take pictures, make phone calls, scan social media feed, and more. It’s little wonder, then, that kids often have to compete with a parent’s phone for attention.
A recent study of how smart phones affect parent/child relationships reveals somber conclusions: many parents interact with their child harshly or in an angry manner, if at all, when interrupted while on a smart phone, according to Jennifer Radesky and her colleagues, who published the study “Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants.”
What messages do children perceive in these instances and how does this impact their growing perceptions of how to interact with others? Parents’ lack of collective presence could set the tone for future generations.
What Parents Can Do
Don’t wait until your child wonders whether he or she is as important as your device. According to Alice Park, in Time, “…recognizing that responding to email or scanning Facebook while your kids are waiting or attempting to get your attention isn’t fair to them and could change the nature of your relationship with your kids if they don’t feel they are as important as the device.”
There are actions parents can take now to foster healthy, balanced technology use and encourage the development of interpersonal skills:
- No devices at the dinner table. Research confirms that regular family meals where parents and kids have opportunities to interact and share about their day are a strong predictor of future success.
- Keep phones and devices out of bedrooms. Kids, as well as adults, should “power down” at least two hours prior to bedtime. Studies show that exposure to backlight from devices such as phones or tablets can interrupt sleep cycles, which puts kids at risk for obesity, academic problems, and behavior issues.
- Teach your child about technology etiquette. You can model this by putting your own phone away, for example, at the movie theater, church, or doctor’s office. Explain the importance of being present and free of distractions in certain settings.
- Make a family media use plan. Decide what type of media you permit in your home and to what degree your child can engage with the various types. Communicate your decisions and how you will enforce your plan.
- Make certain times of day “media free.” This can mean, perhaps, no family member can check email, news feeds, or play app-based games, for example, just after school or for an hour after dinner. Use this time, instead, to re-connect with your family members.
- Point out examples of individuals who exhibit solid people smart skills. This might include people who are adept at making eye contact during a conversation or someone who is skilled at listening and appropriately responding to others’ nonverbal gestures or facial cues.
- Consider and discuss the American Academy of Pediatrics most recent guidelines for children and teens using media with your family: The AAP recommends no more than two hours per day of any type of entertainment screen time for kids 3-18 and none for children 2 or younger. The guidelines cover media such as the Internet, texting, TV, movies, and video games.
Balance the Benefits with Moderation
There are many issues and concerns to consider when it comes to kids using technology; but there are just as many benefits and positive aspects to underscore. Innovations in technology such as Skype and Facetime allow families living far apart to stay connected, while social media can help some kids become more socially confident.
Katherine Bindley agrees: “Technology is not all bad. Its positive effects on youth are well-documented, from the benefits of laptops in schools, to the ways in which iPads are helping autistic children become more social.“
Kids need exposure to and instruction on how to succeed in an increasingly technological world. It makes sense to encourage moderation and model healthy media use as your child finds his or her place in a digital world.