Technology helps us do things we never could before, and the combination of cellular phones and social media is perhaps the single most impactful technological development in the last 20 years…at least in terms of social interaction. We’re seeing that most significantly among teens, popularly dubbed iGen or Generation Z.
According to this article in The Atlantic, “The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently.” Anyone with a teen at home or who spends a fairly significant amount of time with a teen, like a teacher, is likely nodding his or her head while reading this. While our teens are not in close physical proximity to one another, they are connected nearly constantly through technology. But is that connection enough to satisfy the emotional needs of our teens? There’s a wealth of research data that says it is not.
A longitudinal survey conducted from 1975 to 1991 and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse is just one source of that data. The survey asked teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and screen-based activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results showed that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. Sounds logical, yes? Unfortunately, screen-based activities are pervasive to the point that in many social circles, they provide the only means of connection.
Is Social Media Really Social?
Social media channels like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook suggest that they will help users connect to friends and perhaps discover new ones. As The Atlantic article notes, “…the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.”
It’s a devastating and heart-breaking realization for any adult who cares about a teen. As parents, teachers, family and caregivers, what can we do to course-correct and mitigate those feelings of loneliness? This article from The Telegraph, a U.K.-based publication, provides these thoughtful suggestions:
- Encourage your kids to make friends and hang out with others their age. Let them choose their own fun, their own way.
- When at home, ask your kids what they want to do, then suggest they invite some friends along. Help make it happen, and then leave them to it.
- Make your home an open one, a place for parties, hang-outs, and sleepovers. Make use of friends’ homes that are also open yet supervised.
- For all these activities, maintain the minimum amount of oversight necessary to keep your kids safe without being intrusive. Let them find their own way, and come to you if they need help.
For parents and caregivers, the bottom line is this: provide children with opportunities to interact with others, to navigate relationships without the artificial environment technology creates, and to appreciate the subtleties of person-to-person communication. Such experiences not only help mitigate loneliness in the short-term, but also build emotional maturity and resilience.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the Vice President of Marketing and Development at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950-NAMI (6264).