You may have heard the old adage, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” In today’s cyberworld, children are being exposed to messages that teach them apathy, not empathy. Today’s media and culture can confuse kids, leading them to believe that it’s okay to behave in ways that demonstrate a lack of basic care and respect for other people. To routinely turn away from and against bids for attention and intimacy (only too easy online!) and to be complicit in a culture that devalues the effortful act of turning towards. To see bestowing their full attention upon another human being as a significant favor. Their actions have a great deal of potential to hurt others – particularly other kids.
If left unexamined, constant exposure to online culture may impede the development of social skills. And the inevitable transference of online social habits (frequent participation in quick, short exchanges that substitute efficiency for complexity and depth) can cultivate tactlessness and thoughtlessness – a perfect set up for a life of unhealthy, disconnected relationships with others, universally defined by a lack of ability to relate. 
We can see indifference around us every day. In the Digital Age, it has become normal to behave in ways that previously wouldn’t “fly.” Think back to the last time you were forced to watch your conversation partner “multitask” – their eyes flitting back and forth between your face and the screen of their phone, the nonstop interruptions raising the hair on the back of your neck. Think about how you felt. Now think about how you might have felt if you were six.

As adults in this situation, we may take offense, but (although we may understand the reason for our distress) be hard pressed to think of the right thing to say or do. There’s no script – and our mounting frustration detracts from our ability to communicate about the intricate structures of cause and effect underlying our emotional response. But the bottom line is, for the most part, we have the ability to identify our emotions and quickly put a finger on the source of our displeasure. A six year old, a ten year old, even a sixteen year old, may not.

Having been raised in the culture of the Digital Age, older kids may understand – that is, they may not be surprised by their conversation partner’s behavior, having learned from previous experiences to expect nothing less – but their feelings may not have “learned.” Kids may not have learned to recognize what, in particular, is causing them to feel upset. And they may not yet have learned the skills necessary to process rudeness differently, according to our new social conventions (if you know where we can learn these skills, please contact us immediately)!
It’s far too easy for young ones to get lost in the social ambiguity of the Digital Age – and to stop thinking of inconsiderate behaviors they see online as rude or unacceptable. They may begin to doubt the validity of their expectations, experiences, and feelings. They may begin to question their understanding of what it means to be present with each other. And, like us, they may begin to judge themselves.  

So if we want to talk about Emotion Coaching, focusing on Step 5 (healthy problem solving in upsetting situations), our conversation must take into account the challenges intrinsic to the high-tech world our kids are growing up in. We need to think of ways in which endless exposure to social media and communication technology in the Digital Age may get in the way of the lessons we try to teach so that we may tailor them accordingly.

Throughout next week, look forward to a discussion of ways in which you can help your kids to engage with, process, and adaptively react to their emotions when put in these confusing situations. To help them see that their hurt feelings are not their fault – that they should expect no less respect and consideration from their conversation partners online than they expect face to face. To guide them with self awareness, empathy, and love, drawing from your own experience and values… and from the 5 Steps of Emotion Coaching!

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Invalidating Indifference

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.