Communicating with your social media obsessed teen

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By Sabrina Almeida

The recent amber alert issued when a 15-year-old girl went missing in Mississauga puts the focus on a troubling trend—social  media  obsessed youth increasingly detached from their families and avoiding almost any form of physical communication.

Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms that we are not even aware of have virtually replaced family interaction. Kids are willing to bare their lives on social media and vent all their frustrations here but keep any conversation with parents and even friends to a minimum.

Since you can’t follow your teen on Twitter, Snapchat or any other social media platform unless you are part of their group, many parents are totally in the dark about what’s going on in their children’s lives until trouble comes their way.

As one mother explained her situation, any attempt to talk to her teenage kids was mostly perceived as an intrusion of their private space. With all conversation restricted to monosyllabic grunts and wanting to avoid the constant confrontation that arose because of it, she has converted to their way of life—texting. For her the texts are more gratifying as they offer more detail than any physical chat she could expect to have with them. Moreover, it’s the only way to keep in touch and stay in the know.

There’s two ways to look at it—our kids are either wired differently or technology has rewired them. I am inclined to believe it is a matter or choice… and of course fitting in.

If you have observed how texting and social media has transformed interactions even among older adults, it is easy to see how an increasing reliance and preference for digital forms of communication has replaced the human touch.

Texting is becoming “the way” to communicate even between family members and we are now relying on emoticons and emojis to convey happiness, anger, sadness, etc. A Pew Research study reveals that it is a preferred form of interaction for 55% of teens in the US. And while girls like to communicate via texts, for boys it is video games.

What’s the catch? Human beings were not designed to connect this way. UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian found that 58 percent of communication is through body language, 35 percent through vocal tone, pitch, and emphasis, and a mere 7 percent through content of the message.

Why text then? You don’t have to deal with a person’s emotions or reveal your own. Call it avoidance behavior or protectionism. It also takes less energy.

While social media aimed at keeping individuals in constant touch with one another, the unintended consequence is the inability and unwillingness to deal with people and emotions in the real world.

Also, the elimination of face-to-face communications has resulted in kids with low self-esteem building a larger than life persona that people will like on social media. But contrary to being the remedy, it increases feelings of inadequacy both on social media and in the real world.

People who are socially anxious prefer to communicate on social media rather than face-to-face as virtual interaction is less intimidating. However, comparisons with their friends on social sites like Facebook might make them feel even more inadequate and miserable, a recent study led by social psychiatrist Ethan Cross of the University of Michigan found. The result is hooking up with the wrong people, depression and harmful behaviors.

What can parents do to keep their kids safe? While every situation is different, keeping the lines of communication open is key. This means initiating dialogue and above all “listening”. Chances are we won’t like what we are hearing but that’s an inherent part of parent-child relationships no matter the generation. Being judgmental or trying to be the super parent who swoops in and fixes it all could do more harm than good.

Any habit is difficult to break. It takes time, patience and staying the course.  And encouragement not criticism!

The goal is to empower your kids with skills to deal with people and situations in a positive way. Above all… recognize when you need professional help. It’s not a stigma and can prevent a dire situation. After all what’s more important–your child or social reputation?

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