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How Tech Has Changed Our Kids’ Friendships

Friday, 28 August, 2020

Jana Dalby

Remember how every ‘80s and ‘90s movie began? A group of kids would meet up, hop on their bicycles, and head out on an adventure.

Back then, kids’ friendships worked that way. Getting together meant agreeing on a meeting time and location, and then spending the day exploring or getting into trouble.

Imagine that same movie trope updated for 2020: A bunch of kids pull out their phones, sit on their own couches, and surf social media separately. No wonder that scene never seems to make the cut.

Too often, the technologies meant to bring us together wind up pushing us apart. When smartphones aren’t used to build relationships, they wind up getting in the way. 

What’s that doing to our kids? I’ve noticed a few dangerous trends:

1. Trouble communicating

Human interaction is like anything else: It takes practice to do well. 

Online communication doesn’t seem to be an effective substitute. A study by the University of California, Los Angeles found that kids who spend a lot of time on digital media struggle to read non-verbal emotional cues as well as their tech-free counterparts. This can put kids at a disadvantage in school or work contexts that require nuanced communication.

Online interactions also promote “lazy” communication. Slang terms, emojis, and acronyms that look like Greek to parents are easier to text than fully developed sentences. As the habit sets in, communicating in professional ways becomes more difficult. 

2. Quantity-over-quality mentality

Blame social media: Many kids today would rather build lengthy lists of friends instead of a few, solid relationships. It’s a lot easier to brag about having a lot of followers online than it is to feel good about having someone to confide in.

The truth is, having the most friends feels an awful lot like having none at all. Your connections become little more than profile pictures. Real connections are much more fulfilling, not to mention that they’ll actually be there for you when times are tough. 

3. Cultural self-selection

It’s no coincidence that polarization wasn’t as bad before digital media. The internet makes it easy to get in touch with people all over the world. The trouble is, most people use it to connect with people who make them feel comfortable — in other words, people like them. 

Sure, it’s easy to surround yourself online with people who think just like you do. If nobody ever challenges you, though, you won’t know how to deal with conflict. Differences will seem like threats rather than things to be celebrated. Real relationships promote empathy and diversity.

4. Transactional interactions

What should you expect from your friends? That they’ll have your back on the playground? That when you forget to bring your lunch, they’ll share theirs with you?

For many kids, technology has made relationships more transactional. No longer is friendship seen as a bond through thick and thin, but rather as a way to achieve a goal. 

Friends aren’t friends because they help you achieve a certain Snapchat streak, or because they “liked” a lot of your Facebook posts. These shallow relationships are easily broken.

5. Need for instant gratification

Technology has made it possible to get what we want when we want it. When we can send text messages in seconds, we can’t deal with it when someone takes a whole hour to respond to us. 

Frankly, that’s a terrible lesson to teach kids. The good things in life take time. Real relationships are rarely built in months, much less minutes. Kids need to learn that patience is a virtue, and that problems do not arise out of nowhere. 

6. Avoidance

Which is easier: Distracting yourself from a problem, or actually dealing with it? Avoiding it, of course.

Smartphones simply make it too easy to ignore what’s going on in the world around you. This is at the root of one theory about the association between mental health issues and kids’ screen time: It’s not that smartphones themselves cause depression or anxiety, the thinking goes, but rather that kids overuse them to avoid facing those issues.

Kids simply aren’t mature enough yet to use tech for its intended purpose. Especially when they see their parents doing the same thing, they find it easier to escape. 

7. Isolation

When they can take part in a community online, kids may not feel a need to develop in-person relationships. They become content with all of their social interactions happening on a screen.

Isolating yourself from the world is a dangerous path. Many of the joys and opportunities of life simply can’t be experienced through a screen. Good luck getting fit, having a meaningful career, or starting a family.

Kids may not care about those priorities today. But down the road, they will, and they’ll be grateful that you pointed them in the right direction. 

That direction isn’t in their pocket; it’s outside, where real life happens. Remind your kids of that, in case you haven’t recently.