Cyber Self-Soothing & Digital Individuation
So many parents despair over the amount of time kids spend online these days. They fret over the interruptions to study time and loss of sleep, wondering what they can do to regain control.
I’d like to offer an alternative perspective–the bright side of the matter.
Let me state at the outset that I am not suggesting that kids should have unlimited access to technology; nor am I disputing the fact that social media and homework are best left mutually exclusive. I advocate for balance, and I’ve already debunked the myth of multitasking.
What I do want to suggest is that in the midst of all that media surfing, in those long hours huddled over a glowing screen, some good stuff could be happening for your teen.
I’m saying it might not be a complete a waste of time.
One of the major developmental tasks of adolescence is identity formation. The internet provides a kind of virtual laboratory, where teens can mix things up and experiment, without having to make any real commitment to the ideas and personas. In cyberspace kids can wonder aloud:
- “Maybe I’m this or that or another thing.”
- “What kind of reaction will I get when I try this?”
- “Do people like this version of me?”
By curating images and ideas, they are defining their tastes and forming opinions. Sure, there are some cyber-risks, but this identity business is messy even in real life.
Finding a Tribe
The social aspect of the internet receives a lot of bad press. Cyber-bullying makes sensational headlines; the billions of positive cyber-exchanges that happen everyday don’t. Lots of kids are busy supporting, helping, and looking out for one another.
In my work as a school counsellor, I hear about far more positive social media exchanges than I do of the sensational, headliner type. Kids form groups around interests; share ideas and resources; accept, encourage and inspire one another; and generally feel part of something bigger. To belong is the quest, and many achieve it through social media.
When previous generations of teens suffered, they sought out wise counsel and relief from a grandparent, a pastor, or a teacher. Today’s kids seek not wisdom but information, and they go straight to the fount of knowledge known as Google.
Teens who are feeling sad are likely to google depression and look for insights and self-help steps. If, in their search, they come across other kids who are experiencing similar feelings, they may bond over the issue. They find comfort in company, and, sometimes, this alone makes them feel better.
Of course, it can backfire. Occasionally teens spiral downward together, mistaking emotional identification for empathy, thinking true friendship is about bottoming out in sync. It’s a scary scenario that can happen between emotionally ill-equipped adolescents.
Unfortunately for kids, Google–fount of information that it is–does not always distinguish between healthy and unhealthy coping strategies. It is disturbing to note that many teens stumble into calorie restriction and self-harm by reading pro-ana (pro anorexia) posts or encountering images of cutting. Experimentation may result, which can be alarming–to say the least.
This is where open communication pays off. Parental curiosity keeps the door open; criticism slams it shut quick-smart. Teens are highly sensitive to judgment–so make sure your curiosity is not tinged with suspicion. You have a much better chance of helping them navigate all this stuff if you’re on speaking terms–before it turns into something ugly. Ask questions, and take an interest in those funny videos and the pictures of cute puppies.
Boredom, frustration, loneliness, insecurity, confusion, and fear are uncomfortable feelings and states. Zoning out on the internet is simply a convenient way to avoid dealing with those unpleasant emotions. It’s distraction, plain and simple. And teens aren’t just numbing out; they’re hunting down funny videos and pictures to share around.
To parents, this pursuit might look like pure time wasting, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a clever strategy for dealing with stress. The ability to self-sooth, to manage uncomfortable emotions, is a skill–and an important element of emotional intelligence.
In measured doses, distraction can be a legitimate coping strategy that gives temporary relief; however, it is one that can quickly turn problematic. Parents can help by modelling a variety of coping strategies. If your own default is distraction by technology–guess what? Your child will probably follow suit. Other healthy coping strategies include:
- Talking (rather than bottling up problems)
- Gratitude journalling
- Humour & laughter
- Exercise or sport
- Creative or crafty pursuits
- Practising optimism
So the next time you’re fretting over the time your teen is wasting online, step back and observe. Look out for the good possibilities–collaboration, a sense of belonging, exploration, contribution and empathy. They could even be developing some important self-soothing skills and working out the all important question of who they are.
Need some empirical evidence?
Read an article from Mashable that reports on recent research showing Facebook can improve one’s self esteem here.
Photo by Dave Di Biase, Surfing in Style, http://www.sxc.hu/profile/davdibiase