Connection is Not the Ultimate Goal; Social-Emotional Health Is

Recently one of our friends attended a presentation on the topic of youth and technology.  Among many points, the presenter indicated that given most teens have phones (and this isn’t likely to change), the focus should be on teaching them to use them well and also using social media as a means of establishing connections and starting conversations.  Although concerns were acknowledged about the current state of youth and technology use, the overriding theme centered on the reality that parents should accept the trends as they are and learn to use the technology well.

Over the years in talking to hundreds of parents on this topic, one repeated concern voiced about restricting technology usage is the worry that their kids will suffer socially, and will lose out on a lot of connections that “linked in” youth make on a regular basis.  There is a genuine, and understandable fear, that if their teens and pre-teens don’t have ready access to mobile devices and social media, their social lives will suffer, leading to negative psychological consequences.  Therefore, parents often find themselves granting tech privileges way ahead of when they feel comfortable doing so (only to regularly spend the following years conflicted by this choice for a variety of reasons).

Inherent in this discussion is the idea that social connection is important; no one (myself included) would ever challenge this notion.  Yet if we look closer at this issue, we begin to see that there is a significant difference between being connected and having good social-emotional health.  For starters, it is imperative to note that the first 20+ years of life are filled with brain development and interpersonal experiences that will affect us for the rest of our lives (in more ways than we ever realize).  In certain ways, these early experiences and the neurological growth that accompanies them cannot be reversed.  Practically speaking, it involves areas such as nonverbal communication, emotional regulation, sustaining attention, empathetic processing, responsiveness, delaying gratification, and a myriad of other skills that are so important to our relationships and happiness.

What this means is that although “making connections” are important in youth, what is actually most important is building a foundation of social-emotional health that is predicated on the kinds of changes we can’t see (e.g., neurological functioning) and the kinds of things we can (e.g., mood/behavior).  As parents, it is perfectly fine that we want our kids to feel associated with those around them.  But if our society is to not only survive, but thrive, we must place our primary focus on providing guidance geared towards optimal social-emotional health.  Otherwise, what is truly one of the most important factors in a functional society will slowly give way to circumstances that become self-destructive in the short and long-term.

Sadly, it appears this is already occurring, and I will highlight this pattern in two ways.  First, there is growing evidence that decreasing social-emotional health is rendering worsening situations in education, healthcare, employment, and political arenas.  Beyond all the statistics to support this, many conversations I have had over the past decade reveal just what a burden this reality is causing all sectors of society.  Schools are increasingly spending money and resources on social-emotional experts because of the significant impact poor social-emotional health is having on learning.  Postgraduate personnel note that an increasing number of college students seem to struggle with basic tasks of communication and daily living.  Employers are bemoaning the fact that their associates seem to more and more have difficulties with basic conversational and relational skills that impact their work and retention,all the while struggling to find employees that will stay on a job for a decent period of time.  And politically, well, we aren’t exactly showing an ability to effectively manage differences and work together for the common good.  The list goes on and on.

But even before we talk about the ways that poor social-emotional health has a broad impact on society, there is a curious paradox to consider when it comes to the utmost focus on “being connected.”  For starters, there is little doubt that our youth today are more linked to each other than ever before.  Yet, beneath the surface, it appears being connected is not synonymous with good outcomes.  Consider that the iPhone was released in 2007 and gradually has migrated to younger and younger kids.  Since that time, polls of teens have highlighted huge increases in loneliness and massive declines in dating and hanging out (face-to-face) with friends.  This is coupled with the fact that teens today have a growing suicide rate that is 2.5 times higher than their peers during the Great Depression and that sizable increases in anxiety and depression have been seen.  And this doesn’t even touch the concerning changes in basic social skills, such as eye contact and nonverbal communication, alluded to before.  Although certainly there could be other factors involved in these trends, the tech revolution hasn’t exactly helped our “connected” youth live happier, healthier lives.

So, I come back to all of us as parents and professionals and ask—-Do we really think that making connections should be the ultimate goal if this requires foregoing what’s best for their development and their future?  The irony is that when we prioritize social-emotional health for our youth, opportunities for making and sustaining connections will likely only increase for the rest of their life.  But when we focus largely on making connections as youth and don’t support making the best decisions for their social-emotional health, they are more likely to struggle with turning these connections into healthy relationships (and decisions) for the rest of their lives.  Even more interestingly, I have noticed that some of the healthiest youth & young adults I know are also the ones that have a few good friends, but tend to not be overly focused on making and maintaining online connections.  They often “fly under the radar” because they generally are not seen as the most popular or recognizable, but when you spend time with them and listen to their goals and where they invest their time, you realize that they are leading a balanced healthy life (unlike many of their peers).  And as someone who regularly works with youth and young adults of all ages, it is these individuals who stand out not just because of their academic merits, but even more so because of their ability to engage in a social-emotional manner that clearly supersedes most of their classmates.

In 2008, the Journal of Adolescent Health published an entire edition on the emerging science related to adolescent brain development.  In the last decade since its release, repeated findings have highlighted just how much social-emotional development occurs during the teen years and how critical (and potentially harmful) this is for the rest of their life.  In the opening letter of this edition, the authors note the following (pg 322):

Adolescent self-esteem, family and school connectedness, and belief systems have been identified as protective factors for positive adolescent emotional health. If one conceptualizes these elements of societal guidance as the “brake” for reckless adolescent behavior before the inhibitory prefrontal cortex is fully developed, then one can understand that our forefathers were correct in providing structure and guidance for developing adolescents through close family, school, and community relationships.

Evidence is suggesting that mobile devices may turn out to be the most addictive entity human beings have ever created (or cultivated).  Youth who use these devices for social media and other functions are repeatedly subjected to a flood of dopamine in the brain that is altering their development at the most critical of times, before the “inhibitory prefrontal cortex is fully developed.”  And yet, we as parents are somehow assuming they can handle these devices and the rapid, unpredictable influx of communication that comes with them (long before they are able to do so).

If we are not going to be the “brakes” for our youth, then who is going to be?  The answer, of course, is no one.  Yet, so often parents and professionals just resign themselves to the idea that there is nothing we can do about the societal trends with regard to tech and youth.  But as I noted in a recent article, we actually have incredible power to change these trends in our community and country as we are slowly seeing in small pockets.  Frankly, the idea that we are helpless to influence the trends would be like saying that our youth are paying for the monthly phone bills that provide much of their access in the first place.  I know it is hard and involves a lot of intentional, sometimes awkward conversations.  But isn’t anything worthwhile in life much the same way?

Exactly one hundred years ago, the state of Michigan where the Model T was born began to issue driver’s licenses.  Early in the history of driving, there was no restriction for age.  But over time, a groundswell arose that there should be a minimum driving age even though for some families, there were certain advantages for their younger kids to drive.  The risks were just too great and the minimum age of 16 was established throughout the U.S.  Even today, the debate still remains about whether this minimum age should be increased (as other countries have done) given the high rate of teen accidents.

It is unlikely that legislation will be enacted that prevent youth from having mobile devices although we are already seeing legal restrictions in the world stage about where youth are allowed to have them.  But the broader point of this automobile analogy is that no matter what technology emerges, we as people, families, schools, communities, and a country must decide whether it is good for our youth, for each other, and for our future.  No matter how amazing or convenient technology is, this does not justify simply allowing it to take over our youth’s lives.  And the fact that many have come to believe that our youth—after barely a decade of immersion into these technological trends—must be engaged in regular social networking through their own devices is just as disturbing as the approximately 50% of adults who indicate that they couldn’t live without  their smartphones.  Of course, it makes you wonder what humanity did a little over a decade ago and for the thousands of years before.

I guess we actually talked, and found more direct ways to work things out.  Which is what we need our youth to learn how to do.

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