Emma Rogers, co-Founder / CEO of Little Bridge explains the importance of making social media safe for kids. Originally published on Medium on July 30, 2020
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Through person to person transmission, COVID-19 has reminded us all that we live in a connected world. As we’ve retreated into digital bubbles, it’s also boosted the huge and empowering technologies that enable us to retain those connections. Families across generations have found solace by staying in touch via Zoom, GoogleMeet, FaceTime etc. Meanwhile, the suspension of daily ‘busyness’ in our lives reminds us how much time with friends, family and colleagues matters.
Unsurprisingly then, research into what children are missing in the absence of school gives, as the number one item, ‘friends’. We fret about how much curriculum time is being ‘lost’ and how we organise online lessons and ‘catch up’ courses. Yet we’re failing to see what the virus really took away from our children: peer to peer socialisation.
The importance of friends
Children are inherently social beings. Anyone with a baby will have seen how, from an early age, their attention is drawn to the voices, the movements, of other children. Likewise, anyone who has taken a young child into a crowded space will have seen how quickly they identify another small person, make eye contact and often venture an approach, however sidling, even without an adult’s prompting.
That’s no surprise. Throughout our evolutionary history, the ability to make friends has been a crucial survival skill. Whilst there is no simple formula for friendship, it’s known that building connections and can mitigate isolation and feelings of loneliness. As Leon Neyfakh from The Boston Globe observes, adults who developed friendship skills, ‘were more likely to have healthy relationships with family and to have a positive outlook on their lives, and less likely to suffer from depression’. It’s also suggested that people with less social connection may have weaker immune systems and overall physical health.
In today’s neurotic, results-driven educational environment, we have been slow to recognise that schools are great at facilitating socialisation. It’s possibly their most important function. Teachers are experts in the world of connection and are highly skilled in managing childhood relationships. We don’t give them enough credit for this; nor do we consider it a skill worth measuring or fostering as an educational priority.
We are now slowly resetting educational objectives and highlighting the soft or 21st century skills that our future workforce will require. These include adaptability, the ability to listen, to communicate and to collaborate. We’re also coming to value the ability to make independent contributions, to question, to hypothesise and to create.
These skills are also the fundamentals of friendship.
Helping children make friends
Decades of research suggest that adults can play a significant role in guiding children to make friends. Encouraging innate sociability should be a focus for parents and educators alike. It’s important for individual wellbeing and for the general social good. For a connected world, where ‘traditional’ employment is shrinking, it’s critical that human beings cultivate and use their social powers. This is our head start on the ‘developing workforce’ of robots. From the earliest age, the benefits of being ‘prosocial’ are clear. This means caring, sharing and helpfulness and knowing how to keep selfish or aggressive impulses in check. These are the hugely important first steps towards the important interpersonal skills of empathy, perspective-taking and moral reasoning.
Parents and teachers alike all need to become conscious coaches of these skills and to reflect on personal behaviours. We can start by establishing a framework with some simple ‘rules of engagement’. Most people are guilty of negative or selfish emotions that ( mostly!) they try to control. Children need to learn to recognise these forces within themselves with the support of adults who encourage a problem-solving approach. Ignoring, or even trivialising these emotions does not help to build the tools that everyone needs to keep them in check.
More than half a century ago the American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, wrote an influential book. In it he argued for the importance of ‘chumships’ in activating children’s sense of empathy. He wrote, ‘when he finally finds a chum—somewhere between 8-and-a-half and ten, you will discover that a child [is beginning] to develop a real sensitivity to what matters to another person.’ Again, it’s no surprise that encouraging discussion about emotions, including conflicts, seems to boost social skills. And it helps children to make friends.
Kindness is an important ingredient of friendship formation. It tends to elicit a positive response. It can be one of the best ways to begin a friendship. Likewise, expressing openness casts wide the metaphorical door to friendship. Of course it doesn’t guarantee that anyone will walk through that door. So to increase the odds that a friendship will grow, children can learn to extend their friendship invitations to those who are most likely to respond.
In their book, Children’s Friendship Training, Fred Frankel and Robert Myatt (UCLA Semel Institute) describe a process of learning to ‘make conversation’. This includes ‘trading’ information’ such as ‘likes and dislikes’, offering information about yourself and inviting your new friend(s) to do the same. The aim is not to be either a conversation dominator or even an interrogator. The goal is to foster curiosity and empathy. Ideally it can lead to some kind of collaborative activity, shared challenge or problem to solve.
With a light, but carefully attentive touch, we adults can monitor children’s burgeoning social life. We can keep a look out for negative behaviors. We can also try to help children cope with what might be described as tricky social situations. These include how to join in with a communal activity when you’re the ‘new’ one, or how to avoid being critical or disruptive, leading to rejection. In other words, we can encourage simple strategies that enable children to start making positive connections and build a network of friends.
When things go wrong
Bullying (both ways – for those on the receiving end and those doling it out) isn’t a healthy part of childhood. Here experts agree that adults need to get involved. Nevertheless, we should be aware that, by focusing on preventing things from going wrong, we risk losing sight of what healthy peer relations actually look like. So wherever possible it’s generally recommended to provide children with clear rules or concrete frameworks (we’re talking here of those aged 6+), then let them work things out for themselves. This way they build social experience.
Making social media safe for kids
Of course, digital worlds are now significant arenas for social interaction. These require a special kind of structure and supervision. School aged children today are ‘generation social media’. Online networks and communities are part of the social fabric they witness and increasingly engage with. Learning the rules to make positive connections with online friends is as important as avoiding the pitfalls.
By way of introduction to this friendship ‘pool’, it’s not enough to let children dabble in adult social platforms, which many do despite clear age restrictions. Children under the age of 12 years need their own rules-based and moderated, safe spaces where they can expand their connections and experience the thrill of getting to know someone new, someone who can expand their world view.
Little Bridge offers a rules-based, strictly moderated, age appropriate social community, which rewards kindness and collaboration.Create your free Parent account and discover more here.
Because, when it comes to cultural differences, there’s much for children to learn if they are to thrive in a global context. Here’s where our ability to hone our social skills with nuances becomes critical. It’s a skill that remains difficult to hand over to machines. Children can discover all kinds of things beyond their immediate (physical) experience. These include ‘time zones’ and differences in daily life and that what we have in common is often greater than where we differ. They can also come to understand that people in different cultures may interpret behaviors differently.
For example, suppose your friend failed a math test, whereas you did extremely well, should you announce your success to your friend? In a cross-cultural study, American school children agreed that doing so would seem like boasting. But Chinese children viewed the matter differently. To them, sharing information about success with an unsuccessful friend would send the message: ‘I can help you do better.’
Knowing these subtleties, or training yourself to be open to them, is setting yourself up for wider success, something our children can experience too. As the post-pandemic world unfolds and our ever more connected future evolves, we have a choice. We can retreat into familiar circles or reach beyond physical and social boundaries to enjoy a wealth of different opportunities. In the past, this applied principally to the privileged minority who traveled and even relocated for work. Thanks to technology, our ability to widen our community is becoming ever easier. The skills we develop to become successful global citizens are grounded in our understanding and practice of friendship.
It takes a virus to inspire us
It might well be that the arrival of the COVID-19 virus has just delivered us a valuable key to unlock our educational priorities and address the changing demands for future employability. Let’s start by acknowledging the value of friendship and the routes to building connections successfully and internationally. And let’s do it for every child.
Little Bridge’s mission is to create a safe space for young children (aged 6-12) to connect, make new friends and learn to communicate (kindly!), in English.
Take the first steps to explore this exciting social learning community, by creating your free Parent Account. Find out more here.
Emma Rogers, co-founder of Little Bridge.
Enjoyed reading Making social media safe for kids? Visit Emma’s Medium profile to find out more about social learning.