How to Protect Kids’ Mental Health When Friendships Move Online

Why it’s important to help them navigate digital relationships

Photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash

Listening to my favorite podcast and doing chores around the house, it happens again. The host’s voice is interrupted by a high-pitched ring tone indicating a FaceTime call coming in.

It’s for my son, who is outside on the trampoline. I don’t answer. Five seconds later, it rings again and again. It won’t stop ringing until I answer and tell the well-meaning 10-year-old in a voice that’s desperately trying not to yell that his friend can’t talk.

I know my child repeats the same annoying behavior. When I tell him to give up, that clearly whoever he’s trying to reach is unavailable, he shoots me a “go away, mom” look.

Screenshot from author’s phone

This scenario repeats itself all day long. I have to believe I’m not the only one.

It began during the lockdown. Ripped away from the face-to-face interaction they needed as social creatures, they turned to FaceTime, Kids Messenger, Zoom, Gaming devices, and Google Hangouts to stay connected.

My son “invented” the virtual sleepover — I’m quite sure the idea isn’t original to him. He and his friend or cousin talked until they fell asleep, and then one would immediately call the other as soon as he woke up.

I loved it. I felt so much gratitude that their friends were on the other end of the screen. I can’t imagine how I would’ve felt in the late 80s, holed away in my house with only my two brothers, four television channels, and an Atari.

However, it didn’t take long before I realized the conversations playing out on their tablets lacked the nuance that comes with learning how to navigate social interaction anywhere, much less online.

Sometimes it’s awkward — long pauses where no one says anything. Other times it’s funny, “Hey, wanna see my rash?”

And sometimes it’s cringy. My niece told my daughter the conversation was boring, and she wanted to go.

Most of all, I notice there is a sense of rejection when they reach out, and no one picks up. And so they keep trying. Over and over again.

As an adult, it’s easy to dismiss. There are a lot of lessons kids need to figure out on their own. Is this one of them?

What Happens When Their Social World Moves Online

When coronavirus hit, many children turned to Facebook Messenger Kids as a way to stay in contact. Facebook launched the app directed at the 12 and under crowd in 2017. After listening to feedback from parents, Facebook updated its parent dashboard earlier this year.

As schools closed and families dealt with social distancing, Facebook saw a 325% increase in the number of app downloads from the prior month.

In a recent Forbe’s article, Morgan Brown, a Facebook director of product management who is in charge of Messenger Kids, noted,

“We think of Messenger Kids as digital training wheels,” says Brown, the Facebook executive. Where they “learn what’s appropriate: when to text, to call someone, what to do when someone doesn’t answer your call.” Or what to do if someone ignores a friend request.

It may be digital training wheels, but lately, it feels like those wheels are falling off. I’ve managed my fair share of hurt feelings for the last few months. Suddenly the 1980s seemed like the glory days. I never worried about whether a friend would accept my request or not.

I never had to deal with reading comments friends wrote about me or the fear of someone “blocking” me. I also instinctively knew not to call someone at 6 a.m. or during dinner time.

Writing in Additude, Jay Campbell notes,

Texting, apps, and social media keep them connected continuously throughout the weekend and even each night of the week. This can be a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the bonds of friendship, but it can also make forming friendships confusing and complicated, or even impossible.

As adults, we know texting can get lost in translation. With zero body language or tone of voice to help interpret, it’s easy to mistake a friend or loved one’s casual message as something else entirely. I can only imagine it’s exponentially worse for our children.

I’ve seen chats escalate from, “Why didn’t you answer my call,” to we can’t be friends anymore. Only to see them texting away an hour later.

Don’t get me wrong, this technology is here to stay, and as responsible parents, we have to figure out how to navigate our children through the complexity of it all. It’s just that before the pandemic, managing my children’s social media interactions didn’t feel like a full-time job.

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

What to do about it

Decide if your child is mature enough to handle the ups and downs of digital communication. Training wheels are helpful in the sense they allow parents the ability to screen and approve just about everything. Yet, only you know your child best.

Sometimes we need to make decisions for our kids that we falsely believed they were mature enough to make for themselves, writes Campbell.

If your child is suffering emotionally from a few unhealthy interactions, there’s no shame in taking it away. Kids can be mean, and with the protection of screens, they can get downright ugly.

Group chats and texting threads often go awry.

Restricting access can be just the right medicine at times — despite your child’s reaction.

Even when the interactions are sweet and innocent, they can turn addicting. My daughter once left a Zoom class to answer a message from her friend (she’s 8). After that, I started putting her iPad in airplane mode for most of the day.

Studies show gaming and internet-interactions can be as addicting as substance abuse, as they experience the same highs and lows.

At the very least, remove screens from children’s bedrooms.

Next, if we accept this tech-based childhood form of communication is here to stay (it is), we’re better off learning how to guide them through it.

Experts advise it takes patience and consistency, plus proper modeling of how we communicate with each other.

Be a media role model.

Talk to them about appropriate times to contact friends, how to say goodbye, how to politely decline a request to join a game, etc. For a child who aims to please, it can be challenging to say no or not right now.

Monitor their chats and address any issues popping up.

I had to call my son out for being mean to his best friends. He thought they started it, but I could tell they hadn’t. After going through the chain of messages, he agreed, and I coached him through apologizing (by calling, not texting).

I am by no means a shining example. When the pandemic hit, I let my kids have far more screen time than any pediatrician might qualify as “healthy.” Now, I’m facing the repercussions of having to break some terrible habits.

I also don’t believe the next generation is doomed or that social media is entirely evil. There is a time and a place for everything.

As with learning to ride a bike, they will fall off, scrape their knees and try again. The training wheels are there to help, but when they come off, be there to help them ride with confidence.

Writing to help the world become a healthier, happier place. Let’s chat:

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