We began October by posting excerpts from a new book we are working on, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). Excerpt #2 ended with us breaking down media technology (MT) into three categories: communication, entertainment, and information. These three categories help us take a deeper look at how we are engaging with MT and how MT is shaping how our kid understand themselves and the world they live in. In this next excerpt, we take a closer look at our first category: communication.
Let’s start with communication.
What follows are two scenarios from my private practice. As you read, think about what is missing from the relationships described. What do children need from us to understand the importance of communication and its impact on friendship, intimacy, sexuality, and a strong sense of self?
Elsa, 13, is in my office, crying. Her boyfriend of six months has broken up with her. “How did it happen?” I ask. “He broke our streak!” she tells me. Now, because I see a great many teens, I know that a streak is the number of consecutive days that you have Snapchatted with someone. The length of your streak is ranked by the emojis next to your friend’s and your names and, for many 13-year-olds, emojis define the relationship. Today the streak had been broken.
“What did he say?” I ask.
“I haven’t talked to him,” she replies.
“Not at all?” I ask.
“He broke our streak! We’ve slipped to a yellow heart!”
“But you don’t really know what happened. Why don’t you call him?” I ask, risking her disdain that I could even imagine any other reason for his non-response.
“That would be too weird,” she replies. “He doesn’t like to talk on the phone.”
How is Elsa’s understanding of relationship being defined by the Snapchat platform? What is Elsa learning? What is she not learning?
On the same day, Amelia, 14, is in my office. She starts the session telling me that she is no longer interested in Byron.
“Why?” I ask.
“Well, he sent me something really disgusting on Snapchat,” she says.
“Oh,” I reply. “That sounds disappointing; I know you liked him. How did you respond?”
“I didn’t do anything,” she replies.
“Did you let him know you thought what he did was disgusting?”
“Oh no,” she says, sheepishly. “I didn’t want to break our streak.”
We can dismiss these scenarios as the insignificant drama of young teens. But it pays to look a little deeper. Adolescence is a time when learning how to negotiate the subtleties of social situations and handle emotions that come with one’s budding sexuality is far more important than learning how to take standardized tests. Yet, not only do we not teach children how to negotiate these challenges in an ethical way, we leave them to the structures of social media platforms to guide and make sense of these formative explorations. Snapchat seems to be designed with the young adolescent in mind. They can flirt, tease, and push the boundaries of intimacy, without risking the awkward pauses that come when trying to figure out if someone likes you or struggling to find the words to express complex feelings. The effort of getting to know someone is reduced to remembering to send a picture before 24 hours has passed. Who thinks to tell our children that sending naked pictures of themselves not only puts them at risk socially, but also betrays a sense of privacy that gives intimate relationships meaning and value? We don’t tell them because we do not live in a world where bits of ourselves can be sent instantaneously to anyone and, just as quickly, disappear. It was just a moment’s titillation, nothing more. How important can it be?
Have you ever watched a group of teens hanging out together? They do absolutely nothing. They just hang, often they mumble at each other, make a joke, tease, flirt, absorb each other’s company. Nothing is happening, yet from the perspective of adolescent development, everything is happening. They are exploring their sexual attraction, testing their capacity to express feelings, learning how others connect or detach, and coping with rejection. They are becoming part of a tribe, the tribe of their generation. Have you watched a group of teens hang together lately? They are all on their phones, perhaps texting or Snapchatting the person right next to them, safe from the anxiety of having to engage with complex sentences, the intensity of eye contact, or the subtle nuances of body language. In this MT world, you can’t see the immediate consequences of saying something inappropriate, and will not learn to find the acceptable line between flirtation and aggression. All of these experiences have been flattened and can be negotiated with emojis. The brilliance of social media is that it buffers the teen from the pain and anxiety of face-to-face social engagement, while at the same time offering continuous social connection.
What do children need from us to understand the importance of communication and its impact on friendship, intimacy, sexuality, and a strong sense of self?