This week I was at a planning meeting for an upcoming symposium with experts in social media and child development. One of the psychologists shared an all-too-familiar story about a girl who was completely distraught on a school camping trip when there was no cell service and only one corner of the cafeteria with wifi. She actually said, "Can we please take a moment of silence for this tragedy of no connectivity?"
Truth be told, most of us adults can relate to this fear of "disconnection" from our own lives, too. I had a similar, seemingly ridiculous moment this summer after an accidental technical glitch while making plans with friends that left me in a desperate social media moment. There I was on a Saturday night texting back and forth about where to meet when my friends seemingly disappeared. I texted them both - no response; I called them -- no response. All the while I simultaneously watched their fun photos being posted on Instagram and Facebook. Yes, it's a bit embarrassing to admit it now but there I was, a grown woman with a rich social life reduced to feeling like an angst-ridden teenager who was being left out because of interrupted digital access to my clique.
Technology and social media have been impactful additions to many aspects of our lives, but our reliance on these tools clearly has its risks for the relationships we care about. In that Saturday night debacle, the mundane reality of one of my friends leaving her phone in the car and the other's battery dying created a very real- albeit completely accidental -- emotional dis-connect between us. The next day, we had a difficult conversation, and then discovered that they both assumed the other had reached out to me. The dialogue that followed led to greater transparency, understanding, and intimacy for us all. A true connection.
When we understand both the potential for social media to be a positive tool -- when used mindfully -- and work to share of ourselves authentically, we can engender real communication and connection. We can, in turn, acknowledge what others may be going through and find mutual support in sharing our experiences. This requires vulnerability and a willingness to be honest and authentic, skills that most of us aren't comfortable with, because we lack the tools and day-to-day practice in doing so.
Social media ups the ante and raises the stakes for all of us. It's just one reason why I believe it must intensify our focus on social and emotional learning, so our children can learn how essential it is to treat one another with caring and respect, as well as how to better deal with the stress and burdens that social media can generate.
In our work at the Flawless Foundation we champion programs like the RULER Approach to Social and Emotional Learning where curriculum in schools is utilized to teach teachers and students how to navigate through these issues. An added bonus of social-emotional learning is that it can help us ultimately connect on social media with more compassion for one another in the broader "real world" of our connected lives. At it's best, I believe this is what social media is, or at least should be, about. Clearly that's far easier to say than to achieve. But, it's a start to an important conversation we should all be committed to engaging in with the people in our lives, especially our children.
For some young people -- this digital age can provide accessible new paths for social development and connection. This is the key: using social media for a positive purpose. If we use it to make meaning and take real-world action, it can be a home run, even with the simplest of human gestures. Taking action can be as simple as calling someone, sending a card, or reaching out directly in response to a status update with bad news. I recently witnessed something inspiring when a friend processed the loss of her brother to suicide online; the lessons to us all about grief and trauma were invaluable.
Social media can also be a powerful vehicle to help us stay connected with people who we can't easily engage with from various realms of our increasingly far-flung lives, like the simple step of sharing photos with a homebound or elderly family member to help them stay connected. I send photos through my phone to my Mother almost everyday, to help keep her engaged with family living thousands of miles away. When we are physically together, we scroll through Facebook looking at photos of our relatives and friends on the other side of the country. My own community of close friends and family are in three other cities. But it is amazing to me that, because of the ongoing and caring connection of social media, I can land in San Francisco, LA or NY and feel a sense of being home without skipping a beat.
As in all things... it's about moderation, self-awareness and being present in ways that are respectful of others. And of course, our paths and choices on this journey are our own. Ironically, as much as I believe in social media, my 14-year-old son is at the opposite end of the spectrum and shuns it all. He doesn't even want a cellphone. Technology may always be changing, and our choices may be diverse, but people are the same. And the simple, enduring question we face as people in all of our "flawlessness" is whether we can be good to one another- and "like" ourselves first. Can we have social media with soul? After all, that's the real human value of "connectivity."