Helping Kids to Be Well in a Digital World

Matthew Johnson

Reprinted from "Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 9 (2), pp. 21-23

Like previous generations, today’s kids often seem like they’re glued to their phones. The difference today, however, is that they can take their phones with them wherever they go, use them to play video games and access the Internet, and even sleep with them under their pillows.

Digital devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops are so deeply integrated into kids’ social lives today that it’s not really accurate to talk about “online relationships.” This is because nearly all of kids’ relationships are at least partly online.

While a lot of the worry about kids meeting strangers online has faded since it’s become clear how uncommon that actually is, there are still issues that we need to be aware of. One is that online relationships, whether they’re friendships or romantic relationships, happen in “Internet time”—faster and more intense. Fights, arguments and misunderstandings can get more serious very quickly, as people send posts and messages back and forth and friends pick one side or another.

This is what kids call “drama.” And while the drama most often burns itself out, it can sometimes lead to long feuds, broken friendships, online harassment, and sharing things like pictures that were meant to be kept private.

The nature of ‘drama’ in kids’ online worlds

There are three reasons why online relationships are so likely to involve drama. One is this fact that teens’ social lives are “always on,” which creates an audience for anything juicy and exciting. The second reason, which is related to that, is that kids’ online socializing mostly happens in public, on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The third reason is that, when kids interact with each other through screens, there is a distancing effect that makes them less likely to feel empathy for other people.

Some of this distancing effect is because of the technology. Many of the cues we use to understand how someone is feeling, as well as the ones we use to tell someone we’re not being serious—body language, tone of voice, facial expression—either aren’t there or are less clear when we’re communicating through digital devices.

Another aspect of distancing is the bystander effect: when we’re watching something happen in a group, we’re actually less likely to take action and get involved than if we’re the only one there. There are several reasons this may happen: we feel less personal responsibility when we’re in a group; we often follow the lead of the other people in the group; and we worry about how other people will see us if we act differently from everyone else.

The young people that MediaSmarts interviewed for its Young Canadians in a Wired World research project have come up with some solutions for limiting drama. For instance, some said they would always take time—whether it was five minutes, an hour or more—before answering something that made them angry. Others said that if they had a conflict with someone online, they would always talk to them in person before doing anything else.

Adults have a role to play here too. Setting clear expectations about the right way to treat people online, whether it’s through rules at home or policies at school, is an important way to get kids to think twice before they act. It’s important to stress that we have to treat people who aren’t our friends the same way we treat our friends. Otherwise, when there’s drama, our kids will just side with their friends and make things worse.

Self-esteem at risk

More severe forms of drama can fall into the realm of cyberbullying. Online harassment or online relationship violence, for example, can have a major effect on young people’s self-esteem and even their long-term mental and physical health. These are cases where youth need to be able to talk to their friends, parents and other trusted adults to help them deal with the issues they’re experiencing to do with these online interactions.

There are also less obvious things that can affect kids’ self-esteem, like the pressure to post “selfies”—photos of yourself. These photos may not be sexual or revealing—though that is, of course, an issue too—but they are expected to be glamorous and attractive. Selfies are posted to sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on in hopes of attracting “shares” and “likes,” which are seen as signs of popularity.

So, there is strong pressure to get the selfie ‘just right,’ without making it look like you’re trying too hard. Some of the tricks are low-tech—holding the camera just above your eye line, for example, so that it points slightly down at you. But kids, especially girls, also make heavy use of Photoshop, Instagram filters and other technological tools to give themselves the desired look.

Connie Morrison, in her book Who Do They Think They Are? Teenage Girls & Their Avatars in Spaces of Social Online Communication, says “girls understand that the images on television and in magazines are manipulated, and for some this understanding seems to lead to an expectation that they can (or should) be doing the same.” As one of the girls she interviews puts it, “It makes me more comfortable...when my profile picture is something that looks flawless and ‘pretty’ even though I know it’s fake.”

So what can we do?

The best way adults can help kids deal with self-esteem issues is to teach them to ask critical questions about the media they consume—and about the media they create. If we prompt kids to question the kinds of media portrayals they’re imitating online, we help them understand the messages they’re sending.

We can also encourage them in interests like music, sports and arts, to help remind them that there’s more to life than popularity. Taking a regular “tech break” or “digital sabbath” can also help to relieve the pressure to compete and to put things in perspective—but don’t make this a rule, or a punishment, or it will backfire.

Finally, the most important thing adults can do is to keep an open line of communication with kids, and to be there to listen when they need us.

For our kids, and for all of us, the way we live online has raised a lot of challenging issues—and there are many more to come. The good news is that fostering empathy and teaching kids to be thoughtful and mindful users of digital media will go a long way toward helping them handle whatever challenges the online world has to throw at them.

 
About the author

Matthew is the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy. MediaSmarts (www.mediasmarts.ca) is dedicated to ensuring that youth have the critical thinking skills to engage with media as active and informed digital citizens

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