What Our Kids Are Missing, and What We Can Do About It

Picture of Michael Picco
Michael Picco

Hi, I'm a Psychiatrist. I help people who need help with mental health. Love hearing music and watching movies.

It was weird enough to have a generation of kids growing up on the internet, eyes glued to their phones. Then, in March of last year, COVID restrictions hit and schools became virtual. Kids of all ages suddenly lost daily face-to-face interaction with peers.


Now it was no longer the case that arguably too much of their socialization was being mediated by screens; now ALL of their socialization was happening through a screen.


Think about that.


Over the millennia, we humans evolved an ability to “read” people via the nuances of small gestures, facial expressions, and subliminal cues like body chemical smells and pheromones that we perceive beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. If there is something “not right” about someone, we feel the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, and then we back away, physically and/or emotionally. This ability to “sense” a person is our precious neurobiological inheritance.


But how can we do that online, when all we can see of a person is from the shoulders up, and sometimes not even that? Many children these days are on headsets, absorbed in their Xboxes or play stations, where all they perceive is some voice coming through from the other end – and now technology can alter even that.


Kids are losing the ability to read body language.


They spend hours “socializing” through typing platforms and just-voice platforms. The individuals involved can be masked and disguised. Maybe they’re “making new friends,” but they cannot build true reliability and trust in a virtual environment.


They may feel like everyone is their best friend because they’re receiving hundreds of “likes” on Facebook, or bouquets of happy-faced emojis.


Okay, It’s Not All Bad


Decades ago, a lot of school kids had penpals in different states or countries. Today, instead of writing letters to each other, kids connect online across vast distances, playing games, or sharing common interests. I know teens who now have friends in Norway, Japan, and Canada. They would never have had that amazing opportunity to connect were it not for screen technology and social media platforms. And a great deal of wholesome intercultural learning is exchanged through those connections.


Also, let’s not forget that Zoom meetings and such have given parents the ability to work from home and be with their kids for a greater part of the day.


Furthermore, I grant you that Zoom and other face-to-face platforms don’t feel entirely disembodied. We can read each other’s faces a little bit. Something does come through. We can emote, smile, engage, and watch each other’s eyes. And sometimes it’s nice to have that virtual barrier. I might actually feel a little more at ease if I know you don’t see, for example, the stain on my jeans, or my hands fidgeting under the table.


Yet, Still ….


But then again, kids in classrooms are motivated by feedback from teachers and peers that isn’t strictly verbal. It includes quick smiles and various types of fleeting eye contact. You just don’t get that sort of thing in an online platform with a little box onscreen for every face in the “room.” Kids are deprived of opportunities to pick up on social cues and feel connected in an organic way.


So much of our natural human bonding arises via the chemistry of seeing one another in person, reading each other’s movements, perhaps walking together or sitting across a table from each other, faintly leaning towards one another, or stepping slightly back. Even two small kids just coloring together, with the ability to reach across the table and share crayons, are communicating much more than words.


We miss all that small, subtle, understated but richly expressive physical interaction when we’re on the screen.


Now schools are starting to open again, and that’s a good thing, but I believe we are going to see some developmental delays in many kids, in terms of their social agility. They’ve had this technology barrier and physical distancing in place for more than a year now; that’s a long time in a child’s life. They’re going to have to learn how to re-acclimate to non-virtual interaction and regain the ability to read body language.


Helping Our Kids Re-acclimate


We can help our kids get ready to embrace the real world again by, for starters, having conversations with them about it. Talk about natural body language and how to pay attention to it and understand it.


Model it! Lead by example. Have more face-to-face interaction in the household. Play board games together. Set a rule of no cell phones at the dinner table. Take walks outside with no phone.


Encourage community connections. That’s harder than usual now because of the pandemic, but maybe you have nice neighbors to chat with the outside, or extended family members or close friends who can come by and sit outside for a little while (properly distanced and masked).


Don’t keep your kids indoors all the time. Let them play outside and be kids!


And if you’re watching a movie together, if everyone is sitting together looking at a screen … okay, but put away your other devices during that time so at least you’re all having one experience together. In my own family, there can be five of us (Mom, Dad, and three kids) on a couch watching a movie, but we’re simultaneously each on our own devices as well! Don’t do that. Don’t do as I do. I’ll stop doing it too.


Finally, a word of caution: Try and be aware of what social media platforms your kids are on. We all know that there are people out there who present themselves as something they are not, and can pose a potential danger to our children via social media. Therefore, apps exist that allow you to track where your kids go on the internet. OurPact is one that places a limit on the number of hours your teen can be engaged with a phone or social media. At the very least, talk to your kids and ask them what platforms they are on. Depending on how mature your child is and how much you trust them, that may be all you need to do.

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