As a 90’s kid whose parents worked long hours and swing shifts, I spent a lot of time watching Nickelodeon on the television set. At the time, it seemed harmless. However, we now have data showing that early exposure to television increases the chance of children experiencing attention disorders in early childhood, which I was diagnosed with at age 15 (ADD).
Now with smartphones and social media in the hands of the youth, we face a new epidemic: a deficiency in emotional intelligence, specifically in social awareness and relationship management.
It should be noted that it is not just today’s youth that suffers from an EI deficit. Emotional intelligence is a skill that has been neglected for centuries and is just now getting recognized as an essential skill for life and business.
Why the decline in youth, specifically?
Western society has long been known to place a heavy emphasis on individualism, which social media has capitalized on. When we are focused on the self, the needs and interests of others take a back seat, leading to a lack of empathy and understanding.
Detached from reality
Feeling pressure to meet unrealistic expectations is nothing new. Magazines, commercials, and reality TV shows have been promoting skewed depictions of reality and unrealistic expectations for years. But we weren’t exposed to it around the clock as youth are today.
Today’s youth views reality from a finite lens of short reels and fraudulent candid photos that give the impression that ‘normal’ life involves travel, excitement, fun, and adventure round-the-clock. And implies that a typical individual is one TikTok away from being a celebrity. This puts undue pressure on teens, who yearn for peer approval, to live up to the expectations of social media influencers. It can also lead to chronic stress, depression, and low self-esteem if they believe their life isn’t as exciting or ‘valuable’ as portrayed online.
Smartphones have allowed for unlimited and constant entertainment. It’s not only Gen Z and Millennials that are heads down peering into a screen. However, Gen Z is the first generation to experience growing up with smartphone technology and social media.
The problem with being engaged 24/7 is that we fail to sit in silence, which naturally encourages introspection, mindfulness, and self-discovery. Unfortunately, stillness is often interpreted as a punishment rather than a welcomed gift. It is near impossible to develop self-awareness if we constantly focus on external factors.
Doom and gloom overload
Youth are being exposed to things that they shouldn’t have to worry about at such a young age, for example, climate change, political discord, gun violence, etc.
As you might have noticed, the common theme here is the ease of access to information and entertainment.
Today, you would almost have to be off the grid to escape the world’s chaos. We are bombarded with triggering headlines, propaganda, and hateful rhetoric, which aids in chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. When we spend most of our time in a state of alert or self-protection mode, we struggle to reason and consequently react to our emotional impulses, which bolsters our ego.
COVID-19 did a number on all of us, but it was incredibly impactful on the youth as they are in the midst of psychological and social development. Isolation reduced and, in some cases, eliminated exposure to their friends and traditional social engagement.
Communication was boiled down to text, emojis, and, at best, video conferencing. However, none of these are effective substitutes for face-to-face interaction.
Meaningful and engaging conversations are critical to our well-being as individuals and as a collective society. Socializing helps us to develop social skills, including reading others’ body language, being exposed to alternative opinions and ways of doing things, and forming deep connections.
What’s the solution?
More focus on others
When we focus more on others, we expand our perspective of reality beyond the self—understanding that our well-being and needs are not the only important ones.
As a parent, I encourage you to do community service or volunteer work with your children at least once a month to help reframe their perspective and connect with or assist others in need. This will aid their ability to develop empathy and expand their social awareness.
Allow them to select work they are interested in. For example, they may volunteer at an animal shelter if they love animals. If they enjoy music, find community service events that revolve around a common theme.
It helps to participate with your child so that you are modeling the importance of caring about others. The last thing you want is for them to see this as a punishment.
Community service and volunteer work equally serve as reality checks. Additionally, you may want to limit your child’s time on their devices, especially on social media.
Recommending books or documentaries that offer insight into alternative and broader perspectives can help expand the mind and reduce the anxiety that comes from focusing on the self and the undue pressure from feeling obligated to conform to superficial trends.
Time to be still
Involve your children in activities that foster mindfulness and introspection. For example, spending time in nature, journaling, writing short stories, art (drawing, painting, sculpting, building something, etc.), meditation, star gazing, or planting and maintaining a garden (flower or vegetable).
In the beginning, they may complain about how boring it is. Their brains struggle to slow down after being wired to process extensive rapid data. However, the brain can rewire itself over time to appreciate a more meaningful and slow-paced reality.
A focus on hope
Focusing on hope does not mean ignoring the harsh realities we face. But we can encourage taking action to work towards a better future. For example, suppose they are concerned about climate change. In that case, they can do their part to reduce their carbon footprint by carpooling, recycling, turning off lights or electronics when they aren’t using them, and being a responsible consumer (not buying things they don’t need or throwing things away that are still usable).
Sources like Goodness Exchange are an excellent resource that focuses on the good in the world and can shift the scale from everything being framed as doom and gloom to seeing that there are millions of people and organizations working towards positive change and the greater good.
For a generation that has primarily developed relationships through digital platforms, suggest putting together a friend group that meets in person or connects off social media platforms to remove the endless scrolling and skewed perception of reality.
Uninterrupted interaction is critical to our social-emotional development, which means no phones and limiting the number of photos they take. I highly encourage parents to swap out phones for digital cameras, which inhibits the ability to be preoccupied with social media.
If you’re reading this thinking, “my child is going to have a fit if I do the things you suggest,” you are probably right. They likely will not be thrilled in the beginning. Therefore, I suggest doing this as a family, not just imposing it on your children. It’s important to make changes gradually. Abrupt changes are difficult for all of us. Start slow, steady, and with open communication and your child’s involvement in the decision-making process.
None of us like being told what to do. Providing your child options makes them feel that they are an equal participant.