We live in a world that has become increasingly more networked and intertwined in countless ways. Even as the pandemic has temporarily suspended our usual way of life, enforcing social isolation measures across the globe, it has also proven how we are all connected.
Advances in international travel make it possible for people to go anywhere. Sophisticated mobile devices and online communications allow us to interact with people remotely. Technology facilitated the spread of the coronavirus; it enables us to keep things going in the aftermath.
But what are the implications of that technology on future society? Many adults can still remember a past where computers weren’t a household staple, and few people carried a mobile device everywhere they went. Our children are growing up in a very different world. How does that affect their behavior, and what can we do to steer them away from any adverse effects?
You’ve heard a lot about fake news, cyber-bullying, and how kids today are especially vulnerable to things like status pressure and negative self-image. Often, these issues can be traced to the influence of social media. And much of the advice given to combat this harmful influence is centered around the victim’s response.
We can teach our kids to love themselves, practice mindfulness and critical thinking, and appreciate everyday things and positive interactions in the real world. But a big part of the problem is that other online users are sharing information and expressing themselves without much regard for how their words will impact others.
Research shows an alarming decline in empathy across generations since 1980, particularly within the past decade. Empathy is one of our most vital social skills as a species. It has enabled humans to cooperate and work in groups that achieve things beyond the capability of any individual. If the children of today risk growing up following this negative trend, that could be the biggest problem we need to address as parents.
On the surface, online communications are merely an extension of our face-to-face social interactions. But most people tend to behave differently online. What they say is influenced by the medium itself.
The Internet encourages disinhibition in communication. Often, you don’t know who the other person is or what they are doing. It’s anonymous and asynchronous by nature. And it prevents us from perceiving other people as real human beings. We don’t understand their needs and feelings. We can’t see how the things we say affect them, both immediately and in the long term.
Another factor that can alter the behavior of younger generations is the intense pressure to succeed. Success can be measured in terms of academics and career achievement. But it’s also frequently perceived in terms of status. And again, the Internet exerts a strong influence in this regard.
Social media bombards our kids with often unrealistic ideals and standards of success. Misinformation abounds and makes it difficult to determine what’s genuinely essential. Even adults aren’t immune to these influences. In children, who typically lack the maturity to deal with status pressure, the effects can be crippling.
We don’t know if there is any causative link across declining empathy, disinhibition, and status pressure. What can’t be argued is that they amplify each other’s adverse effects. Left unchecked, the constant use of, and communication through, the Internet can lead to deterioration in our children’s social skills.
The new village
The oft-quoted African proverb teaches us that it takes a village to raise a child. But the rise of technology is changing the nature of our interactions. As we claim to be more connected in the virtual realm, we manage to retreat in terms of our traditional social networks.
Social media is at its best when it supplements a strong sense of community and strong social ties. Not only is it a good idea to limit the screen time of children, but at the same time, we should encourage their presence in community and family events.
Reinforcing traditional social skills in this way will help children to empathize. They will learn more about the world in ways that the Internet simply can’t provide. They can learn to be confident without harming others. Relieved of status pressure, they can enjoy the journey to find their place in a chaotic world.
And as you raise your child to be more aware, involved in their community, and socially responsible, don’t overlook their ‘digital village’ either. UNESCO has stated that digital citizenship is an essential skill for the 21st century. The Internet is irreversibly integrated into our lives, and it’s our responsibility to teach the next generation to be responsible members of the online community.