In the Digital Age, kids may learn quick and easy relationship skills online, building rudimentary, occasionally fulfilling connections using virtual technology. The development of these online relationships often takes the place of relationships offline – the skill-sets required for each being different, each taking time and energy to develop, each resulting in a different worldview – determining children’s perceptions of what constitutes a “normal” human relationship.

Unfortunately, social skills learned on the web are often impossible to apply successfully in the offline world. As kids grow up, they become less and less able to create what we consider to be healthy social relationships. And this difficulty becomes evident quickly and painfully in a kid’s development. Digital Age culture does little to promote gathering in the real, physical world, so instead of learning to build strong, deep, intimate bonds with their peers, kids end up learning a kind of shorthand code for interfacing from a safe distance. Protected from any potential discomfort, they detach enough from the messy reality of social entanglement to be able to engage in it without the help of a manual. 

Of course, the more heavily one relies on plugging into a network via cyber-presence, the more difficult and uncomfortable it may be to unplug and behave with natural ease around others in offline social life. When, with the help of messages from peers and the media, this reliance reaches a pathological level, it creates a situation in which a young person can hypothetically skip learning critical social skills almost entirely. Kids who do so may be left spinning their wheels in the chaotic confusion of space between online and offline life. It is at this juncture that parents may come in handy.

And what do the parents that come in handy have in common? They themselves are able to slow down. They are, in fact, able to stop. Despite being securely strapped into their own seats on the universal tilt-a-whirl that is the Digital Age, they have found a way to dismount when it really matters. We all know how difficult it is to follow this advice in real life – but it’s important to remember it. When kids are deeply upset, their world does stop. If we don’t stop with them, we take a serious risk. We may worry about what will happen if we don’t check our email – but we seldom look at things from a different angle. It may do our families a great deal of good to worry less about momentary absence from an email exchange and more about absence from our kids’ lives.

Parents who make their kids feel loved, valued, cherished, and worthy of attention and respect raise their kids with the self-confidence necessary for making healthy choices – for exercising critical and independent thinking in complicated situations both online and offline. When these kids struggle, they know that their parents are there for them. They know that when they are overwhelmed by a problem or are unsure about how to handle a conflict, they can come to their parents not only for problem-solving but also for comfort and support. Secure in the knowledge that they can rely on their parents for these things, kids are able to develop something precious: faith in themselves. Parents who see their children’s expressions of emotion as opportunities for intimacy and teaching empower their children to apply the lessons they learn in these moments to similar situations in the future.

Instead of giving in to the chaos of the Digital Age, attending and reacting to an overwhelming influx of stimuli, we need to attend to ourselves as parents. Are we making time for our kids? Are we only reacting to their emotional expressions or are we slowing down to share their experience, to think and empathize with them, to help them navigate the difficult process of growing up? Are we present with them in the everyday moments to share love, support, and insight, or is the Digital Age getting in the way? We at The Gottman Relationship Blog direct you (and ourselves) to the wise and immortalized words of Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Slowing Down

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.