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December 8, 2020

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 18

Can Online Socializing Go Too Far?

Episode 18

What’s the limit for children socializing online? Many kids use social media to connect with their friends and as an escape from the monotony of this pandemic. Lisa walks us through the pros and cons of being online – from when getting lost in distractions can be a good thing to when digital technology can be detrimental to a child’s development. Lisa and Reena unpack the research on how best to take a break, especially when our kids (or we!) need to give the body a rest from stress hormones or clear out mental clutter. The episode wraps up by answering a critical question: When is it time to be concerned about our kids’ online social activity? For Children Everywhere – Crisis Text Line is free 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741 741 from anywhere in the US to reach a trained crisis counselor. www.crisistextline.org Lisa’s most recent NYT column: How Teens Use Downtime to Connect, Distract or Reflect  

December 8, 2020 | 30 min

Transcript | Can Online Socializing Go Too Far?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 18: Can Online Socializing Go Too Far?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: How are you holding up?


LISA: You know that’s exactly right. That’s what we ask people now, right? Not like how are you? I’m asking people the same thing, like how you holding up? How you doing? I’m okay. I’m okay. But I am, I think like everybody, just tired of the pandemic. It’s just so wearing and so tedious even if we’re past the initial sense of crisis around. How are you?


REENA: You know, I feel hope because there are all these vaccines and I know the switch doesn’t get turned on once they get distributed, right? It takes a little bit of time, but I feel more optimistic but I hate winters. I’m a Florida girl who does not know why I am in the Northeast and there’s so much that I am dreading and, you know when you go through this and you’re trying to figure out, okay how do you pull yourself out when you know it’s going to be a long road ahead? How do you cope? What do you do?


LISA: I think right now it’s very day-to-day.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And I know we’ve talked about coping so much in the podcast, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is that good coping is also in its own way kind of tedious, like to make sure that you are getting good exercise and make sure that you’re eating well and preserve your sleep, that that’s it’s own project and its own sense of effort and I’ve been sort of toying with this metaphor and it’s corny but I think it works, which is for me you know that the pandemic is like this extremely long rainstorm and good coping feels like rain gear. That you know when you have to go out in the rain it’s sort of a pain to put on all your rain gear, you know, to put on your jacket, your rain coat and get your umbrella and get your good boots or whatever, but it makes it easier to stand out in the rain, and I think that’s how I am trying to continue to rally, to use my good coping is to think this is the equivalent of putting on my rain coat and getting my umbrella and putting on my boots is to really be disciplined about getting myself to bed and to really disciplined about you know making sure I’m walking enough, but for me it feels day-to-day to just make myself continue to use good coping because that’s what we can do right now.


REENA: And also just, I think for me it’s basic things. Just sometimes making it through the day is like a huge achievement, you know, and I realize on my to-do list we talk a lot about to-do lists, I don’t check one thing off. Like I just feel like I don’t check one thing off but there may be other things around the house or things that need to be sorted where that just comes first. But also makes me think about socializing and, you know, we’ve allowed certain things, like for instance the use of of television or Xbox or whatever it is, that you’ve just become lenient and you’ve really help me understand like this is not the time to be militant about this, and we got this letter from his mom who has a similar question about socializing and when is too much too much. ‘Hey, Lisa. I’m worried about my parenting choices in my 14-year-old daughter. With the craziness of the pandemic with pretty much allowed our daughter to be on her phone ALL OF THE TIME, that’s all in caps by the way, our reasoning is that as long as her grades are staying up in our attitude is good, we don’t have a problem with her FaceTiming, Snapping etc. She’s always been good about talking to us, keeping us in the loop about the things she sees and does. I’m not really worried about her making bad choices, so it’s hard to say what I am worried about. So I guess is that she stays up to 1 or 2 in the morning and sleeps until noonish and is on her phone constantly. She doesn’t have anywhere to be so it really just doesn’t feel normal, but then what does these days? Am I screwing her up by letting her stay up till all hours of the night? Thanks.’ What do you think? I mean I’ve always been told that you’ve got to sleep is important, right?  To stick to sleep.


LISA: It is important and what’s interesting is, there’s I mean there’s so much in this letter, one is like, yep the kid is doing what she’s supposed to do, she’s a good kid, she’s you know well-behaved, she’s communicative with their parents, her grades are high, her attitude’s good. I can see why the parent’s like, I don’t want to mess with this right? Especially in the pandemic. One of the things I’m thinking is how can she sleep till noon every day? You know like what is the school schedule that she has to make that possible? But it does sound like in the letter the parent is saying that she stays up to 1 or 2 in the morning and then is sleeping till about noon. So in some ways I’m like, well she’s actually getting a decent amount of sleep.


REENA: Good point.


LISA: That’s a lot of late night socializing, right? And so there’s, I think one way to slice it is, I do have this question like how can this kid doesn’t have to be anywhere before noon, but apparently she doesn’t. She’s on top of school so we’ll just leave that be. Different schools are dealing with things in different ways. We should play this out in the way I think it is playing out in a lot of families homes where sleep is in fact being compromised. So let’s come back to that. For this child the questions that to me feel like we want to tease apart are, you know, okay so presuming she’s getting enough sleep, what does it mean to have her schedule so shifted? Which is something that I think a lot of families are dealing with, especially in the summer when kids you know were staying up late and sleeping in late, and is that okay? So that’s one question and then the second question is should she be on her phone all the time? Should that really be the main, in fact it sounds like total way, that she’s getting downtime.


REENA: But, Lisa, do you know any teen who is on the phone all the time? Like every time I’m at a grocery store somewhere I see teens are on the phone, right?


LISA: Right. Right.


REENA: So like I don’t have a teen. I don’t quite know where to stand on that.


LISA: It is a really difficult parenting issue when you have a teenager under normal conditions and then in the pandemic and that’s really what the heart of this question is, is you know if they cannot see their friends in person, do we have any sturdy ground for saying, you need to get away from your phone. Or you need to take a break from your phone. And I think this is a really legit question right now, and so certainly just to address the sleep question off the top, which may or may not be an issue in this particular family. It doesn’t sound like it is. It just sounds like this you know the strange configuration of the circadian cycle, but yes for sure we can put down the hammer on phones and technology if they’re disrupting sleep, and I feel very strongly about this. I’m actually, I think generally pretty relaxed about a lot of things around kids and technology, right up to the question of sleep and probably pornography being the other one where I get really rigid and really kind of, you know, do what you can to prevent exposure to pornography,  but it shouldn’t disrupt sleep. So if you have a kiddo who is taking a phone or tech into their bedroom and you know they are using it when they’re supposed to be sleeping I would say that is a fight worth having. So in terms of that question, Reena, about when do we definitely separate teams from their phones are tweens from their phones when they’re supposed to be sleeping that is definitely a time and definitely something that parents should be modeling themselves you know that we should also not let technology get in the way of our sleep.


REENA: So if you put the sleep issue aside for a second, how much is too much time on the phone? Like when should you really be regulating? When is it a problem?


LISA: Okay, so this is interesting, right? Because what this parent describes is what sounds like socializing, right? Snapping, and texting and being in touch with friends, and they don’t really have another option right now for being with their peers, and then it gets into this question of do we tell them they can’t? Or we tell them they’ve got to slow down or stop? And I really like the way this parent is reasoning, which is basically, she’s a good kid, doing the right things, you know talking to us, and I can see why it’s been hard to set some limits. And so the way to think about it would be first making sure the child is actually doing other stuff too, right? Like they do need to have variety in their lives beyond digital school, or you know whatever version of school there is, and phones. So there does need to be some sense of helping out around the house, or helping out around the community, or being physically active and engaged with the environment a little bit beyond, you know, school and phone, and I think parents can reasonably hold that expectation and have some values around what we think is important for everyone to do in the course of the day and model that and then hold kids to that. But do think there’s a lot of room here for saying that the technology is in some ways a tremendous gift to young people right now, and this is a 14-year-old, they want to be with their peers, and can you imagine, Reena, if we had had the pandemic when we were teenagers and could not see our friends and then we’re having to wrangle about the one family phone line to connect with our friends?


REENA: It’s true, and for some of us it was corded.


LISA: Yes.


REENA: We didn’t even have cordless at one point.


LISA: Exactly. So I think there’s really room for latitude especially with all the caveats that this parent is put in place, right? Good kid, trustworthy, and all kids are good, but you know well behaved kid and trustworthy and, you know, handling things well at school. I think with all of those caveats a lot of room to connect with peers digitally is a fair thing.


REENA: So, you know, in this letter the mom’s like, you know, I’m good with her. I’m okay. The problem isn’t being online, like she’s kind of okay with that, she’s proven to have good judgment. What do you do if you’ve got a kid who’s online socially all the time, but you don’t quite trust their judgment?


LISA: Yeah, right? That’s when it gets a lot more interesting, and a lot more complicated. And most kids are impulsive.


REENA: Right? It’s that age. It comes with the territory.


LISA: And again like looking back, Reena, like boy I did some dumb stuff that I am so glad I was basically limited to the analog universe that, you know, I lived in then and did not have a life and did not have a record and did not get, was not shareable, and the problem of course is that now, you know, kids are still kids and kids still do dumb things and sometimes they do really dumb things impulsively online and don’t show good judgment, and it definitely has broader ramifications. So how do we get through that as parents?


REENA: Yeah exactly.


LISA: Okay so here’s a question for you. Do either of your kids have phones yet? They’re 8 and 9. Where are you on that?


REENA: You know they don’t have phones but because of Xbox he does have iCloud messaging, so he’s constantly checking the iCloud messaging now, which is on my account, and it’s a way of communicating and then at one point this week or the week before I was like get off this you guys are texting all the time. Then I realized, you know, they’re talking to each other. It’s totally harmless. Totally harmless. They’re making fun of someone who’s, you know, in their group who doesn’t like cheddar, is a total joke about something and, you know, is that such a bad thing? Like they’re communicating. They have a social connection there. They all feel good about it. So why do I feel this need to shut it down?


LISA: Well it’s interesting you mention there’s sort of like some teasing or something going on, but like you trust it. It’s like you know it’s okay and playful and fun, and I think that’s actually an interesting piece to pick up because sometimes when adults look at how kids are using online socializing, what doesn’t look okay to us actually is okay to them and is playful and fun and silly and comfortable, you know, between kids, and sometimes like it’s happened where I’ve been involved with stuff or kids will bring me you know the the text thread where they feel they were harmed in the text thread, and they show me that the nasty thing that was said to them, but I look at the whole text thread I’m like, whoah, whoah, what about all this stuff you said. And they’re like, oh no no no that was fine. And you’re like, really? I don’t know, looks pretty bad to me. And so I think part of the challenge in this, as we sort of start to pull this apart and tease this apart, is our assessment of what’s okay for them to be doing online the same as their assessment of what’s okay to be doing online? And I think we can say sometimes we’re not in alignment but then the question is, well who’s right? Okay so sometimes we’re going to be right and we also have to be open to the possibility that sometimes we don’t get it. What looks a little funky to us is actually totally how they communicate and comfortable for them. Well so the answer there I think is to ask and to talk about it, right? So you know you use all your son’s thread and you might be like, wait explain this to me like this doesn’t look, you know, I am sure I trust you totally that you see like it was playful and fine, but I can imagine a situation where a parent might, or I might be even looking at a text thread a kid has brought me and be like, explain to me why this okay. And to call the question, you know, not to shut it down but to call the question and to see the value of calling the question because we want kids to reflect. We want them to think about how they’re communicating and that’s a way to get those conversations started.


REENA: Lisa, I love your column in The New York Times that just came out. The headline is, ‘How teens use downtime to connect, distract, reflect.’ How does downtime help for teens, especially in this pandemic?


LISA: Okay so that’s the other issue? So there’s first the question of whether or not they’re using social media appropriately by their standards or ours. And then there’s a question about even if they are using it appropriately, is it the best way to take a break? And I had so much fun writing this column. It’s the most recent one, and we’ll put in the show notes, because what I got to think through in writing it, Reena, was the options that are, in fact, available to young people when they are, when they have openings, when they have openings in their time. Whether it’s like 20 minutes between classes, or here comes another round of break so they’re gonna have a lot of time on their hands, and the default for a lot of teenagers, and I will also say I think for a lot of adults, is that we just hop online, you know, we just kinda go looking to see what’s there


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And it’s worth really unpacking the pros and cons of the downtime choices we make, and so there are a lot of upsides for teens of hopping online. Like they miss their friends, they are able to connect. That is a wonderful thing. The piece that I start to get into in that column is but sometimes they help online and it doesn’t actually make them feel better. You know that they see images of kids who are hanging out that either shouldn’t be hanging out or they wish they were there hanging out with them or both or these get like a yucky news headline because teenagers and tweens like they get all their news often through their, you know it’s all like mixed in with their social media, and so one of the things that I think the parent in this letter might do, that parents in general might do, is to just ask teenagers, just to say, look, when you need a break, how often is it that you hop online and you get what you’re looking for versus you get something you didn’t want. Like just ask it as a straight up question.


REENA: Yeah. You also mention this article, which I found fascinating, is getting lost in distractions, which I find I do all day long without intentionally wanting to do, but it felt so good to hear you say that. Actually getting lost in distractions, it’s not really a bad thing.


LISA: No. No. Not at all, and you know part of it is a form of coping, like part of it is how we’re going to get through the pandemic is just you know checking out and losing ourselves in you know fantastic TV or whatever. In researching this article I talked to this, you know, terrific psychologist Peggy Zakola down at The Ohio University and she made an excellent point that I included that distractions are especially useful if you’re stuck in a worry loop. So if you have a kiddo or you yourself are ruminating about something, just there’s something you’re just grinding on in your mind and getting nowhere and just feeling terrible, distractions are actually away to take a break, you know, just to switch your channels in a way, and what she talked about ,and I love this, is it has a physiological impact that when were worrying we are releasing all sorts of stress hormones into our bloodstream and when we switch the channel, right? From our worries to whatever you know absorbing distraction we choose, it actually stops that process of dumping stress hormones in our blood stream, which we need sometimes, like we need to take a biological break from stress, and distractions can do that, and then also maybe a place where social media for kids doesn’t work as well as maybe just losing themselves in a TV show, because it may actually add to their stress sometimes, even if that’s not why they got on it or wasn’t what they were hoping for when they got on it.


REENA: Wow. So you mean I keep listening, and I don’t know why, to Tim McGraw on Spotify over and over again, and so now I’m wondering is this my body and mind’s way of coping with whatever I’m going through in this moment?


LISA: Sure. Probably.


REENA: Music has just been a great escape for me just listening to something, but you’re saying that this creating the space for your mind to go somewhere is actually okay? And do you recommend it?


LISA: Definitely. I mean definitely in normal times. Definitely in the context of the pandemic and, you know, especially if you’re stuck in a mental rut it can help you get out of that rut, but the other thing you’re describing also I mean music is a really powerful influence on our mood and I find my mood hard to regulate in the pandemic, you know, I can find myself feeling kind of down or sad much more than I normally do. I was in a super good mood yesterday and I was like, wow I wonder why I’m in such a good mood, and it was interesting to notice myself wondering why I would be in such a good mood. I think it was because we got a huge amount of snow and I love snow.


REENA: That’s nice. Unlike me.


LISA: But then the other thing I touch on in this article, and this for me was like so fun to research for this piece, was this idea, this third option, so you got you know connection as an option for when we have down time, and that’s what this, you know, person who wrote the  the letter’s talking about, is that her kid likes to connect and that’s where all the downtime goes. I’m also lobbying for distraction as a use of downtime, right? Just if we need a break and we need a predictable relief, right? You don’t know for sure that social media is always going to provide the relief you need, and then the third kind of break I talk about has to do with reflection, and there’s this terrific body of research on this idea of soft fascination, which is things that we do that are interesting but not that interesting. So stuff like going for a walk in a place you know well, or taking a shower, but I also think it’s a lot of stuff like washing dishes or folding laundry


REENA: Who has fascination with that?


LISA: Exactly. Soft fascination, meaning it’s not that interesting, but what’s cool about it and I love the researchers on this and then I interviewed one of them for that piece, it leaves mind space to think about stuff. It takes only so much bandwidth to wash dishes or fold laundry or go for a walk, and then it leaves open bandwidth to start to think through things or solve problems or reflect on stuff and that that can actually help us to clear up some of the mental clutter that we feel, and so the the way I think we might approach this with teenagers who especially those who are like attached to their phones, might be to say, absolutely if you need to connect with your friends like that’s probably where it’s at, and I know you probably want to connect with your friends. If you’re feeling stuck in a metal rut, go take a break, like go watch something that you know was going to be wonderful, like you don’t always know what you’re gonna find online, and if you’re feeling like your mind is just, like have too many mental tabs open, don’t open more by getting on your phone. Kike go for a walk, or here hey fold laundry with me, like I’m sure they’ll think that’s awesome, but it’s fun and I think all of the applies to adults too, it’s fun to think about being a little bit more conscious in our decision making around, I’ve got some time what is my mental and emotional need right now? And what’s the break I can take that’s going to suit that need well? And we should do it and we should help our kids do it.


REENA: So I want to wrap up and go back to her final question about talking about online socializing and when has it ever gone too far. Her last thing is, am I screwing her up? How do you know when giving your child free reign online socializing is screwing them up? Like what’s the point you should be concerned, and when should you just learn to let go because you’ve taught me a lot about letting go with your child, like sometimes that’s really what’s needed.


LISA: Yeah. I mean I love this parents who’s like, am I screwing my kid up? We worry about that as parents.


REENA: All the time.


LISA: Yeah like are you going to be talking about this in therapy for a long time? Okay so how do you screw your kid up? Like let’s just name it. Okay so here’s how to screw your kid up with online socializing. Let me lay out some options. One, I think, would be if like I just can’t get enough of this, if you let it get in the way of sleep. Sleep holds everyone together. Everyone needs it. Sleep is my favorite and we need to protect it. Another reason for real concern is if what’s happening socially is bad for your kid, whether it means that they are engaged in socializing that is fundamentally harmful to them, harmful to others or both. So they’re getting, you know, cyberbullied or they’re engaging in cyberbullying, I think that’s cause for concern. I also don’t love it when kids are spending time online talking to people they don’t know in real life. And I think that would be something that a parent would want to keep a close eye on, and if you think it’s happening, I would say ask a lot of questions. Be really curious. Try to get a read on it. Consider limiting it. Get consultation on it. So in terms of like how to screw your kid up with online socializing I would say let it interfere with sleep, let them either be a jerk online or be victimized by jerks online, or let them find themselves caught up in a universe that isn’t connected to their real universe. That one you can hear the hesitation like it’s not always the worst thing in the world, and sometimes for kids who are unconventional in their communities, finding a community online can be a wonderful thing, but I just you can hear the big fat asterisk in my voice on that. Like that I would keep a close eye on. That’s how to screw your kid up. That’s what I would say.


REENA: Well never thought we’d do a podcast about ways you can screw your child up in the middle of the pandemic. So, Lisa, in the day-to-day, what are we really supposed to do?


LISA: I think we need to be aware that our kids need a break and we need a break from whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing, and we are all accomplishing and doing things in the pandemic, which is kind of amazing, and we take breaks and we, and especially our kids, often just hop online to take a break, and what I would say is keep a conversation going about whether the break is acting as a break, whether the teenager at the end of that break feels better, restored, connected, ready to get back to business, do the things they’re supposed to do, or whether the break is taking it out of them, and that’s when I think we want to watch that, and we just ask just ask. Don’t say, you do not seem to be happy being online socializing so I’m shutting it down. I think we say, you seem pretty tired. Is everything going okay? Is hopping online talking to your friends, is that doing for you but it should be doing for you? I think it’s something like that.


REENA: So talking to them about it, asking without just shutting it down to shut it down without explanations and having a conversation.


LISA: Yeah. Getting them to reflect. Is this serving me the way I wanted to, and now you’ve got some other options you could offer, right? Do you want to go watch a show? Do you want to go for a walk? You know that they need breaks, we need breaks, but we want to feel better at the end of them.


REENA: So true. so true. That’s so important. Thank you very much.


LISA: You bet. What do you have for For Children Everywhere today?


REENA: You know it got me thinking about socializing online, so we’re going to highlight Crisis Text Line dot org, and the Crisis Text Line, it came out of do something dot org it’s really the largest organization for young people and social change, and they’ve created this text line where it doesn’t matter what you’re going through, its international, you can text someone and connect with the crisis counselor online, and so many of our our children, ourselves even, we communicate with people by texting. So this is a way to reach out, get support online and you don’t have to pick up the phone or go see someone via Zoom. It’s a way to connect and get help. It’s crisis text line dot org.


LISA: Terrific. Terrific.


REENA: So, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?


LISA: So it is not easy to talk to kids about how they use digital technology because they use it so differently than we do, and it means something to them that it doesn’t mean to us, and I think it’s really tempting to be very judgy about how they use their social media, and I think, you know, of course tweens and teenagers can smell judgment at 100 yards and it is not a good way to get a conversation going, and so what I would say to parents is anytime you have to talk with your kid about how they’re using digital technology, start by telling yourself something which not everyone might agree with at first blush but I’m gonna totally stand by it, which is to say if we had access to the technology they have when we were teenagers, we would have used it exactly as they use it, and I know who I was as a teenager, I mean I know how much I took the phone and wanted all night and, Reena, do you remember when call waiting came out?


REENA: You could swap over and get the other call on the line?


LISA: Yeah, and then you have the phone all night because you tell your parents, like no no I’ll let you know if you get a call. So I think tap into that part of your own memory if you can before rolling up on your kid to talk with them about how connected they feel to their technology. And their friends through technology, and try to appreciate that as strange as their technology is, given, you know, if we compare it to what we had, we probably would have given our left arm as adolescents to have what they have, and that’s a really good stance to try to have these conversations from.


REENA: That’s a great perspective and one that I never would have thought to look at that way. LISA: But you know it’s true, right?


REENA: So true. On so many levels. Thanks, Lisa, I’ll see you next week.


LISA: I’ll see you next week.



The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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