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Digital-Media Tips for Parents of Socially Challenged Kids
As a founding partner of Social Foundations in Los Angeles, I work with teachers and parents who worry that constant access and exposure to digital media will hinder kids' social-skills development. It's a reasonable concern. Just about every parent has had to insist on eye contact from a kid engrossed in a video game, battled buzzing and ringing phones at the dinner table, or had to teach an otherwise tech-savvy child how to make a regular, old-fashioned phone call.
Although technology is probably shifting the way we interact and develop socially, it's not all bad news. In fact, in some ways it can extend social interaction in new and exciting ways. I'm confident that adults still have an important role to play in children's social development, especially in the digital age.
Why? Because I've worked with hundreds of children with significant social challenges due to autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental differences. Having seen so many kids with these challenges make impressive strides in their social learning, I know that with appropriate adult expectations and support, all kinds of kids can grow and learn socially, even in the digital age.
You may need a few extra tools in your parenting toolkit. Here are some ideas to try:
- Involve yourself in your children's digital lives. Kids and teens are developing an understanding of the way the social world works while they're socially interacting -- sort of building the airplane while flying it. Your active guidance in their digital lives is vital to their social development.
- Model consistent social behavior in relation to digital media. If you want to encourage social engagement at family dinners, for example, communicate clearly about the times and events you expect to be uninterrupted by technology. Then stick with it to model full, face-to-face, non-digital engagement yourself.
- Expect similar social behavior online and offline. Adults may unintentionally signal to kids some subtle indifference about trash talk, cheating, harsh language, or violence when we're playing online games, since it may not seem as real to us. Yet we would consider the same behavior unsportsmanlike, unfriendly, or seriously antisocial for children on a soccer field, at a spelling bee, or during a game at recess.
- Learn about your child's style of play in interactive games. Half an hour of playing Luigi to your child's Mario in a multiplayer round of New Super Mario Bros., for example, will tell you a great deal about his ability to collaborate patiently, lose gracefully, and more.
- Get to know how young people represent themselves on social media, including the comments, photos, and content they share. Help them tune up their awareness of how an online persona affects real-world relationships. With teens, it can be helpful to start indirectly: Ask them what they think of the way different people portray themselves on Instagram or Twitter. Then listen carefully to their opinions.
- Teach older kids how to self-monitor and manage their screen time. Try this: For a month, instead of imposing limitations on digital engagement -- or using technology as a reward to bait kids into compliance with what should be ordinary expectations -- collaborate with your child on exploring some key questions. What would a healthy balance of digital and non-digital life look like? What would it feel like? What are some real-life activities they would like to spend more time doing, and what help do they need from you to do them? How will they be able to tell for themselves that they've had too much digital interaction and not enough face-to-face?
- Be aware that kids' online social behavior affects others' real-world perceptions of them. For example, if a kid is known as a destructive player in Minecraft, the "Crafters" at her school may not welcome her in their real-life afterschool programming class. Peer perceptions are an especially powerful influence for teens, whether online or offline. Although most teens experiment with creating different personas for themselves as part of exploring their identities, the images they create for themselves on social media can stick long after they're ready to put that phase behind them.
- Learn from your child. These "digital natives" already know they're light years ahead of some of us in understanding and using technology. So ask questions and let them enjoy guiding you on the technology part while you guide them in social learning.