The comfort of online friends

cheryholt, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
cheryholt, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Humans are social beings, but there are a lot of ways to be social. And some of us are a bit socially anxious. People are often surprised when I tell them I am an introvert. I usually make some quip “I’m just well-trained” or “Well, I’m also Southern” meant to end the conversation rather than get into all the details about how introvert and asocial are not the same thing – a discussion for another day.

I can remember feeling physically ill at age eleven the first time I met one of my now best friends. I was starting a new school, and she had been assigned to be my buddy. I had been corresponding with her by letter (yes, I am old enough not to have had email at age eleven) all summer and felt very comfortable and confident we would be good friends.

And yet, there I sat in my father’s car, in near hysterics at the thought of walking into a group of forty other kids, boarding a bus, and meeting her and these other new classmates for the first time. Throughout my childhood, I had often found writing letters to be easier and more fun than talking in person. Eventually, I found the strength to get out of the car, and I am happy to report that three decades later, she is still a rock in my life even though we live far apart.

What on earth does this have to do with child development research or technology?

Bear with me a moment as we fast-forward about twenty years to a really interesting research study on pre-adolescents and adolescents communicating online and their perceived closeness of friends. Patty Valkenburg and Jochen Peter sampled almost 800 kids and teens and found that friends who communicate online rate their closeness higher. This shouldn’t be a surprise today, but it was a bit of a surprise ten years ago.

“The Internet is a safe space for kids like I was, who find social settings awkward, confusing, and sometimes downright miserable.”

What is important for my personal story, however, is that socially anxious participants found the Internet to be even more valuable for “intimate self-disclosure” than their nonanxious peers. What does this mean? It means the Internet is a safe space for kids like I was, who find social settings awkward, confusing, and sometimes downright miserable. More recently, my friend Stephanie Reich and her student Joanna Yau published a study highlighting that for teens, online friendships are just as real and meaningful as those from the physical world.

And so this brings me to today. I am lucky enough to be related to some really amazing people. My sister started her professional life as an attorney and now is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach, and she is a huge extrovert. She has a daughter who is one of the most talented teenagers I know (and yes, I am biased, but also yes, she really is). She just scored the lead role in her school musical, has phenomenal stage presence, and is a huge introvert. It was not until this summer that I began to realize that much of their fights about screen time really centered around this issue. The screen had become symbolic for the tension between my extroverted sister wanting to talk and my introverted niece wanting mostly to be quiet. The worry then that a teen is not being social can be about not being social the way the parent wants or expects. At one point, I said to my niece, “you know how you feel about reading? How much you love it? That’s the way your mother feels about spending time with people.” The look on her face was priceless, pure and utter confusion that such a thing could be true. I can’t really understand it myself, but I have come to accept it.

“Parents might want to consider their children’s personality types in determining policies around social media and Internet use in their households.”

Let me talk about yet another research study. Psychologists published a small study (40 participants) in 2004, in which they found that introverts tended to think of the identity they showed on the Internet as the “real me,” while extroverts saw physical space as more likely to be the “real me.” These findings, along with the ethnographic work of my student Kate Ringland on the use of virtual worlds by people with autism, indicate that parents might want to consider their children’s personality types in determining policies around social media and Internet use in their households.

Similarly, Kristen Harrison gave an incredibly evocative talk at last year’s SRCD workshop on kids and technology. In it, she described an idea that parents and children have media conflicts because they are having sensory perception mismatches and suggested “sensory curation” as a way to understand and deal with these kinds of issues.

Conflicts arise when your child and you don’t prefer the same sensory environment, not necessarily because of some overarching issue with media per se. So a child who likes stimulus and wants to watch TV in the living room while having a conversation about what is happening, tinkering with a toy that makes noise and lights up, and playing with his brother (my son) sometimes gets stuck with a parent who prefers dim light, soft music, and a good book (me).

“Conflicts arise when your child and you don’t prefer the same sensory environment, not necessarily because of some overarching issue with media per se.”

I’ve said before that parents ultimately know best, and I still stick by this. At the same time, we all need a little help making those decisions from time to time. I’ve been thinking a lot about Kristen’s work on sensory environments since she spoke, both as a parent and a researcher. My observations and reading over the summer have me thinking about personality types too.

There are no solid answers out there, but anything that helps me understand my kids a bit more and yell a bit less seems good. It’s either that or ship my very extroverted, sensory-seeking boys off to their aunt for a while. That would probably work too.