How Kids Learn to Communicate in a Social Media World

New York Times’ story on June 9, 2010 poses a new question that parents are beginning to ask about kids and technology.

We have been asking ourselves what happens to children when they spend an average of seven and a half hours a day on media, when they text rather than talk? Will they learn to communicate?

Now we are also asking what happens to children when we—their parents—are so absorbed with our BlackBerries, iPhones or iPads that it sometimes takes a child biting our leg to get our attention?

It is a new frontier—too new for even much research. But some older studies shed new light on this phenomenon.

First, the issue of parents being absorbed by their work predates the current rise in parents’ use social media. In a study I conducted of children themselves (yes, I actually have conducted a series ofAsk the Children studies that ask nationally representative groups of children how they see the issues they face growing up), I found that if given one wish to change how their mother’s or father’s work affects their lives, children from 8 to 18 are most likely to wish that their parents would be less stressed out and tired by their work. Even ten years ago, children told me hundreds of stories of having to say “earth to mom,” or “earth to dad” to get their parents’ attention. This issue may have gotten more extreme (and social media can be particularly addictive) but it is an old issue.

Second, using social media is not good/bad. We tend to frame new issues as either/or—this is good or this is bad. Studies make it very clear that it isn’t bad for children to see that their parents care about their work. And social media isn’t bad or good either. We just need to figure out how we use it so that we can also “be with our kids.” And we need to create social media for kids that help them learn positive skills—not violence.

Third, children need focused and hang-around time. When I asked children what kind of “time with their parents” matters most to them, they didn’t speak of quality or quantity time, the way we do. They said that when they need their parents, they want them to “be there for them”—that’s what I called focused time. They also said that in today’s scheduled world, they also need some hang-around time, where there isn’t a plan and where the family just goes with the flow.

Finally, and most importantly, for children to learn to communicate, they need parents to spend time communicating with them. The New York Times story referenced a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. There are some new studies that provide information on just how providing a language-rich environment for children not only builds their vocabularies but also affects the speed with which they process language. Take a look at this just released Mind in the Making video of a fascinating study on promoting the life skill of communicating in children by Anne Fernald of Stanford University. We also share some ideas of how you can use the “focused time” you have with your children to play games that promote communicating.

These are evergreen issues in a new media world. Each of us is going to have to find the right “fit” between paying focused attention to our kids and to social media. What do you think? And what do you do?


Photo/image by: Alex Couros – courosa / Flickr