“Thank goodness I have a five-year-old, I don’t have to deal with TikTok yet!” a parent recently shared. “Agreed!” chimed in another.
A third parent, however, observed, “Yeah… but who knows what social media platforms will be the rage when our kids get to high school…the metaverse?”
The group quieted, clearly sobered by the prospect.
Media is social as soon as it involves interacting with others.
No one can predict exactly what the digital world will look like in ten years. There is legitimate concern that a profit-driven metaverse will further erode what young people need to thrive. Conversely, some of our best minds (including young people) are working hard to define what age relevant, safe, and playful digital platforms free of commercial exploitation might look and feel like. Young people themselves are often at the leading edge of adopting and hacking tools for their purposes. The reality is probably an ongoing push and pull between commercial demands, adolescent needs, and our collective imagination of what is possible online.
No matter what the future of social media holds, it’s clear that we can do a lot to prepare kids to interact in healthy and meaningful ways online. It is tempting to push off these conversations until kids get their first cell phone. It’s also easy to barrage young kids with a list of “places they should not go” and “things they should not do” online. Let’s be clear that Internet safety talks and safe digital playgrounds are absolutely essential for younger children. But we would be wise to couple these with early and consistent efforts to build the emotional scaffolding they need for healthy online interactions.
In other words, media is social the moment it involves other people. Even if our kids are far from getting their own TikTok accounts, we can start helping them develop the emotional skills they will need when they get there.
Here are five ways to build emotional skills for social media.
Tether online experiences to offline emotional impacts early and often.
There are endless bite-size opportunities to help kids understand that there are real humans on the other side of every interaction online. We can and should start doing this long before digital citizenship curriculum tackles online drama or cyberbullying. For example, with young children we can say,
“It was so fun to send Grandma that picture of you at your basketball game. Let’s close our eyes and imagine how she felt when she opened that text and saw your picture. What do you think her face looked like? Let’s Facetime her to see and then you can tell her more about your game!”
“I love this dance video we just made. I don’t want everybody on the Internet to be able to see it though – just a couple of people we know and love. Let’s stop and think about which of our friends we want to share this with and imagine them watching it.”
Practice communicating with emotional accuracy.
Emotional communication is challenging at any age. Learning how to correctly identify our feelings, state our emotional reality, and respond respectfully when other people express their own emotions is not easy. It can become even more difficult online. For example, trying to discern whether all caps means that someone is excited or angry is confusing at best. To model emotional accuracy, we can say things like,
“I’m not sure that your Papí is going to understand that I am joking just because I used an exclamation point. How can we be sure he knows what I am feeling right now?”
“Let’s each look through these emojis to find the one that is closest to what we are feeling. Then we can try to guess what the other person is feeling. What did we get right? What did we miss? This is tricky! Let’s use words too.”
Avoid outsourcing emotional regulation to technology.
Let’s be clear, handing our kids a phone or tablet for entertainment to avoid an emotional meltdown is sometimes a necessary option to get through the day. The last thing any of us needs is to load any single screen time choice with shame or guilt. We do, however, want to keep an eye on the patterns we create as we learn how to handle and manage feelings like anger, sadness, loneliness, or frustration.
Using unrelated entertainment technology (as opposed to apps designed for this use) to distract, numb, or soothe is tempting because it can solve a problem in the short term. In excess though, this pattern tends to backfire over time for many kids. This is partly because it robs kids of the opportunity to practice having and handling feelings. It also reinforces a practice of going to our devices at the height of emotional dysregulation – a habit that will have higher stakes as kids get older. Instead, we can teach our kids to befriend their feelings instead of avoiding them. For example,
“I can feel worry showing up again! Let’s put away the Pad for a bit so we can figure out how to handle it.”
We can also explicitly model why it is important to regulate our feelings before going online. For example,
“I was so angry earlier and I know that my thinking brain wasn’t online. Did you notice that I put my phone down and took five deep breaths? I am always more careful about how I use my phone when I am mad.”
Practice emotional courage.
Too often, our messages to kids about how to relate to their peers are fairly vague. The message, “Be kind” is important. But it isn’t always obvious to kids how to practice kindness in the real world when social dynamics get more complicated. For example, simply asking children to “be kind” through ongoing experiences of racism is insufficient at best.
Evidence shows that engaging kids as active learners (for example, brainstorming scripts, talking through scenarios, and role playing) helps kids grapple with the complexities of kindness, courage, advocacy, and empathy in ways that are more likely to lead to action. We can start by actively engaging in conversations about books or shows like,
“What would you do if you saw this happen at school? Let’s practice some things you could try.” or “That would really hurt my feelings if someone said that to me. How would you feel? Let’s brainstorm some ways you could respond.”
The more often we engage our kids as active learners in responding to everyday prejudice or bias and teach positive upstander skills for offline scenarios, the more they have to draw on as their social worlds move online.
Emphasize belonging over fitting in.
Evidence indicates that teens with excessive “emotional investment” in social media feedback (likes, shares, etc..) tend to have worse mental health outcomes than those who demonstrate a more resilient sense of self worth. We shouldn’t wait for our kids’ to get an Instagram account to affirm that they have value and worth just for being them.
That said, developing resilience and self worth in the face of any kind of public feedback is no small feat. Conjuring this up during adolescence can be even harder. Pop culture constantly inundates us with messages that our worth is measured by appearance, achievement, or popularity. In other words, Instagram (or platforms like it) will not be our children’s first opportunity to find poor substitutes for self worth. Counteracting these messages early and often can help them start to differentiate between belonging and “fitting in” both offline and online. We can communicate early and often, in the words of Mister Rogers, that we love our kids “just the way that they are.” For example,
“It looks like you have some things in common with the people in that picture and some things that are different and lots of things that the picture doesn’t show at all! What might be missing from this photo? I love all the parts of you.”
Preparing kids for social media doesn’t happen in one conversation or in one school curriculum. Instead, “whatever the brain does a lot of, is what the brain gets good at.” Practice happens over time and in relationship with others. Each of these micro-moments in children’s early years strengthen the emotional architecture kids will draw on as their digital worlds inevitably expand. Let’s not wait until our kids enter the metaverse to get started.