Helping Kids To Handle Online Relationships
Helping Kids To Handle
The most awesome thing has happened to my kids... friends! Their first real, honest-to-goodness buddies. Kids to play and joke and giggle and talk about their favourite things with. People who accept them and make them feel like they belong somewhere. All of this despite the fact that they will almost certainly never meet in person, since they live over 5000 miles away.
For those who have never experienced them, online friendships can be easy to dismiss. Oh but they’re not real friends. The internet is no substitute for face-to-face contact. How much can you know about each other, really...
But at its core friendship is about connection. Sharing. Support. Fun. Trust. Love. Respect. Online my kids have found a way to have all of these things, bypassing the challenges that make real life experiences of friendship so daunting for them.
This digital social world comes with its own challenges however, and a new complex set of social skills is required to understand and navigate these kinds of friendships. So if connecting online is going to be an important part of my kids’ future then I need to make a point of helping them to develop this skill set.
One area that I really want to focus on is understanding the impact that online relationships can have on your emotional health. These friendships come with unique conditions that can have a very different emotional impact than offline relationships - they often develop quickly with a degree of closeness that can take many months to form in real life, and can disappear even more abruptly.
Many of the closest friendships in my life have been with people I’ve never met. Georgie was one of those people, I stumbled into her path through a shared rare medical condition and we liked each other instantly. Our bond was close, borne of the understanding you can only find in someone who’s survived the same kinds of trauma. She was my rock and I made it my mission to visit her the first chance I got, but sadly that chance never came as Georgie passed away suddenly.
When I heard the news weeks later quite by accident, I found myself in shock and grieving a loss that I couldn’t quite explain to others. She was just an online friend, I’d say... as if that made it okay, or somehow less. But she was no less of a friend because we’d never met, no less real to me. My mind kept playing tricks on me... Was she real? What tangible proof do you have? You never saw her smile, felt her touch, heard her laugh. The pain I felt at losing her, the hole it left in my heart and my life, was immense and yet there was nobody to share those memories with, no funeral to go to. I had no real world space in which to put my feelings.
What do you do with the emotions that online friendships generate? The intense affection, the joy from shared laughter, the pain at misinterpreted words, the warmth of secrets, the ardent loyalty and sting of betrayal. The loss when connections disintegrate, the confusion when people disappear, the frustration at losing contact.
In real life you can hug, laugh, frown, yell, storm out. Boundaries are clearly defined by physical space. There’s emotional and mental breathing room in the spaces between sentences, and social norms that protect us from airing our inner most thoughts. The people around us often share or at least witness our relationships, making them far less solitary endeavours.
But online the space for emotional expression is constrained by our abilities with words and the available set of emoticons. The only external outlet for the rush of feelings is the pitter patter of fingers across the keys as we share our lives. At times it can make the online friendship experience frustrating and unsatisfying.
So I’m thinking a lot about how to give my kids the tools they’ll need to be aware of and manage these unique emotional circumstances. There’s a woeful lack of resources on this topic, so it feels like I’m wandering into unchartered waters. But hey, it’s not the first time! These are the guidelines I've come up with so far to help the kids learn about and look after their own online emotional health:
TIPS FOR KEEPING ONLINE FRIENDSHIPS FUN
Share online stuff offline
Let the friendship exist outside of the computer too by involving the people around you in real life. Talk about your buddies in the same way you would an offline friend - the cool stuff they did, things they said that made you laugh.
Vary the contact
Don’t make the entire friendship rely on your ability to type. Mix it up - send each other sound bites, make a video call, draw them a picture.
Make friends multi-dimensional
It’s easy to be less mindful of the feelings of someone who doesn’t feel real. Find out some more information about them - ask them about what they like to do, their home life, their pets.
Learn about conflict
What does a disagreement look like online? How can you tell when it’s getting worse? What can you do or say to make it better?
Set time limits
Just like in real life, people need time apart. The fact that you have access to your friends 24/7 doesn’t mean you should be talking to them all day. It’s important to give yourself a break so you can put the emotions you’re feeling into the proper perspective, and remember that the world outside is bigger than the chat window on your computer.
Trust yourself when things feel wrong
If you’re not having a good time, someone is making you feel bad or you don’t feel safe, that’s the time to walk away - from the computer at least, and possibly the friendship altogether. Make sure you talk to someone in real life about those feelings.
Finding safe spaces online is not just about protecting your credit card and avoiding sexual predators. It’s important to learn how to find people to hang out with who are not only cool and fun but also accepting, respectful and tolerant of others. That’s really, really hard to do and one of the biggest challenges to your online emotional health.
Obviously this is just a start, no doubt it will expand as we work on it over the coming year. But for now I think I'll just sit here awhile and listen to the sweet sounds of my kids laughing and enjoying their new friends.