Some things don’t change. As girls enter their teen, friends become the end-all, be-all of social life, parents become embarrassing, and getting cut down in school becomes devastating. Add phones to the mix, and technology can stunt a valuable part of child’s growth: learning to relate to others, and understand themselves.
Social media use is often a skill portrayed in a positive light, but excessive use can actually hinder emotional intelligence, or EI, which researchers say is a predictor of happy marriages, strong friendships and even financial success. As Daniel Goleman points out in his book, “Emotional Intelligence,” 80 percent of a person’s success depends on EI — traits such as identifying, understanding and managing emotions in a way to relieve stress, communicate effectively and empathize with others, which parents can help to instill and refine in kids.
Girls develop EI between ages 8 and 12, according to Cliff Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford, while boys take a longer period, so constant phone use greatly stunts girls over boys, since they’re more active media consumers at ever younger ages.
I think about this while on a weekend soccer tournament with my own children. In between games, streams of girls strike an all-too familiar position: heads down in concentration, their fingers tapping away on a smartphone. What exactly are they doing, I think, and how does it affect them? So I sit down with a handful of them to hear how they use technology.
After all, you hear a lot about what experts, advocates and researchers think about tweens and technology — maybe it’s time to ask the girls themselves.
The main attraction of phones is browsing and social networking, according to the middle-school aged girls, who had either feature phones or a tablet device with Internet access. Two of the girls did have a Facebook account, but as Lauren said, “Facebook gets boring,” and they all agreed: their favorite place was Instagram. They’ve used the photo sharing app for about a year and said it is the best place to connect with all their friends. Since they join with nicknames, they thought photo-sharing social network was more secure. None of the girls knew Facebook bought Instagram last year.
Instagram is at the forefront of a dizzying array of services designed to appeal to different ages and interests. They pop up and challenge Facebook, many with visual media sharing, which take away from verbal communication — a skill girls are traditionally good at.
Unlike Facebook, Instagram isn’t driven by verbal postings such as “Today is going to be a good day,” but rather with pictures. When I asked for an example of a photo they shared, Kayla showed me a picture she took on a bright, sunny day. In it, her teammates stood in a circle with one leg pointed in toward the center. She took the picture from above, making the legs look like a spokes of a wheel, or in this case, rays of the sun — each one wearing different brightly colored socks and cleats.
Kayla put thought into composing the picture — the sports she loves, her friends and an interesting visual angle. For her, putting it on Instagram was self-expression, both of her identity and her interests. Posting photos gives tweens like Kayla a way to express feelings that words can’t. Girls use pictures to represent themselves to their friends, as they enter an increasingly sophisticated social realm. But it also skips over the opportunity for face-to-face conversation to develop important interpersonal skills.
Beyond their own pictures, tweens share images from other sites too. Marissa, an 11-year-old, for example, scours Google for images of dogs and puppies to add to her Instagram page. Others mentioned memes, the term to describe viral pictures like cats wearing sunglasses in front of a laptop. Good memes spread like wildfire, tickling people’s interest at a rapid pace, aided by the power of mobile technology.
The girls share memes with one another, or search the Internet for them with phrases like, “LOL so true,” “teenager post,” “that awkward moment” or “you just realized.” One girl said she uses iFunny, a free app, to find pictures to share. Searching the sites is nearly as fun as browsing Instagram. They laugh as they mention these search terms, congratulating each other on their recommendations while adding their own. They talk in much the same way as they interact online, where they look at each other’s pages and “like” or comment on them — and they feel gratified to get lots of positive comments.
Sam mentioned a meme that pokes fun of parents offering contradictory advice. “I got a ton of likes on that one,” she added. The girls say it is fun when friends praise their posted images — whether a clever meme or a picture of Christmas gifts. And even the comments on Instagram have images, thanks to the hundreds of emoji, which means pictograph, for the girls to use. Emoji, a Japanese term for picture characters, are the popular smiley faces that adorn digital communication, and a growing number of them come pre-installed on handsets.
“You can say so many things with them,” Riley said, explaining an inside joke where she’ll insert a winking face. She’ll insert the clapping hands emoji to congratulate. A lot of sharing and affirmation goes on in these Instagram circle, but there can be a lot of drama, too.
The girls said Instagram was important to their social life: they have a sleepover and document the fun while it’s happening. And, when they feel bored, they can browse their friends’ pages and see what they’re doing. The drama with Instagram usually arises when posted pictures exclude someone or an image expresses a controversial opinion. Arguments from school can spill over to the site too, which can host seemingly benign, but loaded, comments.
Larry Rosen, author of “IDisorder,” which explores our obsession with technology and the drawbacks it hold on us, said teens on Facebook can have narcissistic tendencies, become more prone to depression and anxiety, and suffer in learning compared to those who don’t regularly use social media.
But the girls disagree. They said they didn’t use Instagram to flirt, since boys their age rarely use the site. That gels with research that suggests girls mature faster — and develop EI — earlier than boys. For example, at the age of 10, girls and boys tend to show aggression equally, but by the age of 13, a meaningful difference begins to show between the sexes. The emotional response of boys, for example, changes little. Girls, meanwhile, develop skills like collective banning, gossiping and indirect communication to replace outright aggression.
Half the girls said they post to Instagram daily, while others said not every day — but almost. Some think relying on “likes” and comments makes girls vulnerable to judgment and criticism, but they said that isn’t the case with them. One girl said, “I don’t care if anyone doesn’t like my picture, I put them there because I do.” Still, the girls had strong consensus that it’s fun to have a popular picture — it feels good when they go and check their page and see lots of likes and comments — but it feels bad when friends overlook their efforts.
Whether you like it or not — or even if you wish it were otherwise — mobile technology plays a big role in how kids build and strengthen friendships during the sometimes awkward pre-teen years. A little of that isn’t harmful, but experts say learning social skills can’t be done solely online — and developing EI takes hard work and practice.
Tweens who devote most their time staring at a two-dimensional screen fail to understand body language, tone of voice and facial cues, which happens in face-to-face encounters. And down the road, that lack of EI may cost them in misunderstood relationships and poor work performance, to name a few. Nass pointed out that in-person and online communication are not interchangeable, and kids must actively look and listen to the people they are with, instead of their smartphones.
“Face-to-face communication was positively associated with feelings of social success,” he said, adding that it was “consistently associated with a range of positive socio-emotional outcomes.”
So if you think your tween is learning good social skills on an app, you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. Re-evaluate that perspective and talk to your kid about Instagram, Facebook and the apps they use. And, when you do, Nass said, don’t be afraid to say, “Look me in the eye when I speak to you,” since that’s one little way to get them to practice their emotional intelligence. ♦