In 2009 a study from Tamyra Pierce of California State University looked at online social sites, cell phones/text messaging, and instant messengers. They sought to find “if social anxiety influences technological versus face-to-face communication.” And while the study depended heavily on self-reporting, the results helped shed light on the growing world of technology influenced adolescence.
Often, youth that indicated discomfort with talking face-to-face with peers used online and text messaging communication to interact with others. This may come as a no-brainer, but a big takeaway here is the inherent need for a sense of belonging. Teen brain development makes them very susceptible to peer pressures and in need of peer approval. Youth that are shy or have more severe difficulty when in social situations may still feel that need to belong. Online communities can fill that need. This is why teens that may isolate themselves in their rooms and distance themselves in face-to-face social interactions still have the desire to communicate consistently with friends online. In this way, they can create interpersonal connections while avoiding some of the embarrassing moments that can come with physical interactions like blushing and stammering.
Yet, there are both pros and cons, especially when it comes to youth social skills and social development. Youth may retreat further away from face-to-face interactions, but are able to feel the satisfaction from having a sense of belonging. The 2009 study mentioned those that heavily use technology to interact socially may experience “an increase in confidence in communicating with others face-to-face due to a perception of social support online.” However, the analysis goes on to cite two older studies that found the more someone interacts on the Internet, the less they interact face-to-face with people around them.
Surely, these trends present dangers beyond deficient adolescent social development. Parents and families that are not actively monitoring what a teen is using their technology for can be completely blind to the conversations and bonds the youth is making on the internet. The ease of communicating with strangers all over the world means the age old advice “don’t talk to strangers” starts to fall on deaf ears. In cyber space, strangers are everywhere and teens may become desensitized to the potential dangers of forming bonds with people that they don’t truly know.
Even youth that reported little to no discomfort with face-to-face interactions reported making more friends online. Thus, the ease of internet communication creates digital friendship for teens across the board, not just those that may feel uncomfortable with socializing in physical spaces.
Youth social time had already begun to shift to the digital world long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, the worldwide emergency created a catalyst for online spaces become the dominant method of interacting. Face-to-face was no longer the primary norm, and schools and employers alike depended on virtual engagements for people to communicate.
This had a huge effect on young people. Teaching youth life skills became a mix of helping them adapt to the changed world around them, while also helping them prepare for physical interactions in the future.
When schools and communities began to open up, many teens were thrust into a world that expected them to communicate face-to-face, despite them not having much opportunity to practice and internalize the nuances of verbal communication.
In 2022 one of many studies looking into the effect of the pandemic on adolescents showed sweeping consequences for teen social development. About 90% of youth “experienced declines with their mental health and social skills as a result of isolation from peers and teachers in face-to-face settings.” The report went on to describe some of the life skills teens were losing included empathy, self-control, and creativeness.
Tackling the technology use of a teenager can be difficult for any parent or guardian. Thankfully, there are dozens of tools and resources that can make the daunting task easier to swallow.
If safety is a concern, apps like Bark can make technology monitoring simple and effective. For parents concerned that their teen’s social development is dangerously behind, more clinical or therapeutic responses can come into play.
Of course, a shy youth or a youth lacking in adequate social skills may not necessarily have social anxiety. Social anxiety and the more severe, social phobia, can have debilitating symptoms and may coincide with other concerning mental health conditions. If a parent or guardian believes their child’s discomfort towards social situations is more than being shy or introverted, then it is important for them to seek professional help.
Teaching youth the life skills necessary for navigating through the world around us is imperative. Social skills and communication with other people are huge parts of that. Teens need to make friends, explore different social circles, and practice effective communication to build skills necessary to “enjoy happy, fulfilling lives as adults”
Small steps can be key to having youth exchange some digital time for face-to-face interactions. Too much at once, and shy or introverted individuals may be overwhelmed. Clubs or leisure activities once a week with family and peers can help create a routine safe space for teens to build social skills and practice social settings.
Another great way to broaden teen social development is to encourage them to spend some time after school in non-academic social settings. After school programs like Next Step To Success are a good start, since structured activities can take some of the pressure off striking up a conversation or engaging in small-talk.
Programs like NSTS will even have activities designed around certain interests, which can give participants common ground. In a great after school program, all youth are able to feel welcome and make friends. Some youth have even made long-lasting connections with peers thanks to after school programming providing a space for teen to practice social skills. Youth workers train with and review positive youth development methods that create environment where healthy communication can thrive and even youth that may otherwise prefer digital engagement feel there is a no-judgement space to walk outside of their comfort zone.
Many after school programs also follow staff to youth ratios of 1 to 15 or less. Smaller group sizes can make youth that are overwhelmed by large crowds more relaxed. Plus, youth that may feel invisible in a classroom of 30 or more can feel seen and heard in a way that makes them more interested in socializing face-to-face.
The more youth can practice socializing on and off the Internet, the more they are set up for success.
If you are a parent or guardian of a teen and would like to help them improve their social skills in this technological age, sign your child up for NSTS or other positive youth development programs available in your local community.