Social skills and the online teenager

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The pandemic years have been a time of immense challenge and difficulty. But they've also been a time of extraordinary resilience and creative problem-solving. One of the problems we solved with great success was the challenge of maintaining connections and relationships with those outside of our ‘bubbles’. We discovered what our children, and especially our teenagers, have known for a long time – technology, and social media in particular, is a great way to stay connected with others and to maintain, even strengthen, relationships. And, in order to save ourselves and our teenagers from the isolation and boredom of being in the same bubble for weeks on end, we encouraged their social media use and relaxed our pre-COVID online gaming rules. And when lockdown ended, many of us remained lenient because we recognised that our teens were already coping with lots of stress and disappointment and that having instant access to their friends for moral support, or blowing off a bit of steam by heckling fellow gamers could, perhaps, be a good thing.

Will they ever actually talk to us again, instead of just sending a DM asking what’s for dinner?

But now many of us are wondering about about our teenagers’ ability to connect with others and build relationships in the offline world. Have we been too lenient with their gaming and their social media use? Will they ever emerge from their dark, vampire-like gaming caves to hang out with the rest of the family? Will they ever actually talk to us again, instead of just sending a DM asking what’s for dinner?

If this is a concern for you, here are some tips that may be helpful to encourage your teenager to put their device down and to dabble in some face-to-face interactions.

Try to remember what being a teenager is like

The teenage years are generally defined by social awkwardness, feeling misunderstood, and a strong desire to assert independence all while still having to follow rules. So, it is not surprising that our teens can find interacting in the offline world difficult – especially when we insist on them doing so on our terms. While you might think getting them to show off their excellent recorder skills at the staff Christmas party is a helpful way to face their social insecurities, it is more likely that it will reinforce their beliefs that the online world is a much safer and more pleasant place to socialise. Instead, provide low-pressure opportunities for social interaction – perhaps with people familiar to them where they can choose to interact or just observe. Be sure to ask them for suggestions and follow their lead.

Yes, it’s true that the teen brain thrives on connection with peers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t like connecting with parents.

Find ways to connect with your teen offline and online

Yes, it’s true that the teen brain thrives on connection with peers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t like connecting with parents. In fact, while our teenagers’ friends are very important to them, research tells us that their relationship with their parents remains a strong influence during the teenage years. Our teens want us to show them that we find them interesting, likeable and worthy of our time. One of the best ways we can do this is by connecting with them through their interests and pursuits. Yes, these may include the latest online gaming craze or going through a gazillion Snapchat filters, but it may also include a trip to the gaming store or make-up shop – all of which provide opportunities to hone their offline social skills without them even realising it!

Model good social skills

Again, remember being a teenager? Then you might remember that teenagers are experts at tuning out lectures. They’ve had a lifetime to practise the right listening face to lure you into a false sense of being heard, when, in reality, all your amazing wisdom has been water off the duck’s back! But, while our words may sometimes not matter much, our teenagers are always watching and learning from our actions. Which means that, if we want our teens to get off their devices and use their offline social skills, we will have to do the same.

Managing our own device use and getting out and about ourselves can give our teenagers the confidence to do so as well. Be a role model of how to have good conversations and how to ask good questions. Show them how to treat others with respect and empathy. And even if you’re not that assertive in social situations, make the effort to go outside of your comfort zone and flex all the social muscles you have – after all, that’s what we’re asking our teenagers to do!

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