Regardless of age, the entanglement of virtual communication and social media is transforming our experience of reality. Though we are predisposed to empathize with one other in the flesh, the digital experience can feel less compassionate. Online, we disappear. If we feel lacking or inadequate, or desire an outlet for frustration, we can use complete anonymity to our advantage. 
Dr. Julie Gottman has this to say: “People sometimes use technology as a mask – so that they don’t have to be looked at and don’t have to make eye contact with anyone else. They don’t have to feel the other person’s tension or convey their own. They don’t have to suppress it or deal with it in any way. So there is an addictive quality here, because this technology allows you to hide. It’s like alcohol – people who are feeling inhibited and afraid of real conversation might drink to disinhibit themselves. To be more honest, feel more connected. It becomes more and more stressful to have real face-to-face interaction.”
Online, without nonverbal cues – without the ability to look into someone’s eyes, observe their body language, hear the fluctuations in their tone of voice – we cannot intuit intention or vicariously experience their feelings. A sense of right and wrong, responsibility for one’s actions, can easily vanish. And even if intimate connection is desired, deep emotional attunement becomes effectively impossible. In its stead, we are granted the opportunity to reconstruct ourselves. 

We can edit idealized online personas, projecting confidence and omitting reference to perceived human flaws. We can spend months developing a satisfying digital self – a pleasing specimen without imperfections or limitations, and naturally, without necessity to experience negative feelings. There is little room in the midst of all of this perfection for genuine intimacy or authentic connection. In the wise words of Jeremy Rifkin, “There is no empathy in utopia, because there is no suffering.” (See video below!)

This transformation of reality is, in the long run, unhelpful –particularly for kids, both online and offline, as it may deprive them of deep relationships with their peers in critical stages of development. After all, trying to connect with a friend over a subject you care about is risky in an environment characterized by disconnections and abrupt interruption. The continuous sense of distraction and urgency in the digital world can spill over into non-virtual reality, and leave kids feeling isolated – their attempts to turn toward repeatedly thwarted by a culture of commotion and disruption.

In turning away, even unintentionally, a conversation partner broadcasts disrespect and disinterest. If you’ve given this person complete attention while they were speaking and they see your response as an opportunity to, for example, respond to the texts loudly accumulating in their phone, you may feel hurt and embarrassed. You might interpret their lack of focus as an indication that what you have to say isn’t interesting enough – you may even feel that you aren’t worth listening to. Disappointment, resentment, and self-doubt can build up pretty quickly.

As parents, here’s what we can do:

We can explain to our kids that online interactions are like in-person interactions, but you don’t get to see the person. So when you’re talking to your friends on the Net, it’s kind of like talking to them with your eyes closed – just because you can’t see their face doesn’t mean that they aren’t real – and that they don’t have feelings. It’s like at school, when the teacher says, “Everyone close your eyes, now whoever did x raise your hand.” People will do things online that they wouldn’t do face-to-face, because they would be embarrassed or afraid of the consequences. Anonymity and the sense that what they are doing isn’t real allow them to act in ways that are hurtful.

Bottom line: Online or offline, your children should treat others the way that they would like to be treated. Talk to your youngsters about their experiences, asking questions like these:

1. How do you feel when your friends don’t respond to your text messages?
2. How do you use technology to communicate with your friends?
3. Do you prefer to talk on the phone or text?
4. What do you think is the best way to communicate with me?
5. Do you ever feel vulnerable when using social media?

In our next post, we will share some ways in which you can set an example for your kids both online and offline. Being a great role model (and Emotion Coach) means getting in touch with yourself and making decisions that line up with your values, modeling good communication skills and positive choices  – strengthening your relationships with your kids and building their confidence in the Digital Age.

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Empathy In Utopia
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.