Making Friends the Old-Fashioned Way
Manhattanville professor tries to heal the wounds caused by social media
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This is a political ad from Dana Levenberg for New York Assembly.
By Warren Berger
“I feel like we use our phone as a barrier between other people and us,” a female college student said to her classmates and her professor, Joni Siani, during a recent communications class Siani was teaching at Westchester’s Manhattanville College. “We edit our photos and craft our texts so much that we’ve stopped being real,” the student added.
There were nods around the classroom, and other students took turns weighing in: “Everyone feels the need to post everything, all the time,” said one, referring to the widespread tendency among young people today to text or write social media posts constantly, about even the most mundane things. Another student noted that living in today’s social media-driven world — where our own images are reflected back to us while social media algorithms serve us customized content — “is like being trapped in a hall of mirrors.”
If it sounds like these students are less than thrilled with the pervasive effects of social media on their lives and everyday behaviors, that would be an understatement. “Traumatized” might be a better word to describe the students, according to their professor, Siani. She says that almost without exception, the students in her class report experiencing bullying and betrayal on social media during their middle school and high school years. Many of them felt pressured to text nude or semi-nude images of themselves to classmates. And they’ve shared with Siani that their constant exposure to social media affected their ability to make friends, be intimate with others, and even just have a decent conversation.
“They are the first generation whose human socialization has been through digital media,” Siani says. And she thinks that is central to why they are part of an 18-24 age demographic that is now, according to some studies, experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and high suicide rates.
“These kids have been through trauma,” Siani says. “Their anxiety levels are through the roof.”
Digital Socialization and “Celling Your Soul”
Siani first became aware of the problem more than a decade ago when she was teaching communication classes to college students in the Boston area. During those still-early days of social media, with Facebook and texting just beginning to get a foothold in people’s everyday lives, Siani conducted classes on how to use social media.
Gradually, she says, her classes “turned into three hours of Facebook group therapy.” At the time, there wasn’t as much public discussion as there is today about the possible harmful effects of social media. But Siani says she could see early on that young people were being deeply affected — often in negative ways — by growing up with constant exposure to online texts and posts.
Siani decided to make this a focus of her communications classes, which she brought to Manhattanville College four years ago. Along the way, she also wrote a book and created a film, both called “Celling Your Soul,” about the harmful effects of social media on young people. Today she also hosts a podcast on the subject called “No App for Life.”
But her main focus is on her Manhattanville students — the survivors of what she calls “digital socialization.” She learns as much from them as they do from her. Among the surprising things she’s discovered is that “sexting” — and in particular, sending images of one’s unclothed body — is far more commonplace among today’s teens than she could have guessed. “I was shocked to learn that so many of my students have been through that,” Siani says. “A lot of it is happening at age 12 or 13, with sex images being traded like baseball cards. The phrase kids use with each other is, ‘Do you send?’ Parents have no idea this is going on, and schools don’t seem to know what to do about it.”
That may be the most dramatic example of what’s going on, but what’s even more common — and perhaps just as damaging — are the everyday online slights and gossip that can plague adolescents. Siani says it can have a lasting effect on their ability to form relationships as they become young adults.
“One theme that keeps emerging with these students is trust or the betrayal of trust,” she says. “Many are feeling that they can’t form trusting friendships. They tend not to have a true ‘best friend’ — their relationships are shallower.”
Siani believes many of these students have a lasting fear of someone disclosing a confidence — and the public humiliation that goes with that. “It stops them from feeling comfortable trusting others.”
Helping Students to Shift Their Behavior
One of the key things Siani tries to do is help students become aware of how their past experiences with social media may have shaped some of their attitudes, fears, and behaviors today. And she also tries to provide some tools and strategies to help them shift some of those behaviors. Specifically, she encourages students to transition to more “in-person” interaction with people — and to work on old-fashioned communication skills, such as listening and asking questions.
“Even with all the technological changes, human beings still have the same basic needs, including a longing to be understood by others,” Siani says. “But social media is not the best tool for getting those needs met.” Conversation is much more effective — whether in-person or on the phone (in the age of texting, many young people have almost completely stopped having phone conversations).
That’s why, in Siani’s classes, one of the homework assignments is to call someone on the phone and try to have an actual conversation. Siani even provides some scripts to use during the phone call, including conversation starters and possible questions to ask. (She also encourages students to use some of those same starters and questions around the dinner table to get conversations going there, as well.)
Another assignment involves writing letters — yes, old-fashioned letters — to friends or family. “Taking the time to write a letter, and to actually think about what you want to say to someone, is so important,” Siani says. “And they have to wait for a response, which never happens in this age of instant communication. When they do this, one thing students discover is that there is value in the anticipation.”
As they are calling, writing, or conversing face-to-face with others, students are encouraged to document the experiences, taking note of how it feels different from digital communication and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. This practice of journaling can become a habit for students; some of them now keep daily diaries.
Finding a Balance Between Online and In-Person
As the students adopt these “new” forms of communication (they’re actually old forms, of course, but they can seem new to a digital-world native), they naturally tend to lessen their time spent using social media. Indeed, there is a one-week period during which students are encouraged to replace their digital forms of communication as much as possible with these other forms. “As they do that, they’re comparing and contrasting the different experiences of non-digital communication — so they can discover the value for themselves.”
But Siani stresses that the goal is not to get her students to “give up” social media—which would probably be pointless anyway and would rob them of the many potential benefits of using digital communication. “This is not about seeing how long you can be away from your device—which would be like trying to measure how long you can hold your breath,” she says. Rather, the goal is to help young people achieve more balance between digital communication and more personal ways of connecting.
But it does cause some students to rethink—and even completely change — their relationship with digital media. A number of students have cut down dramatically on their use of social media — some have even removed SM apps from their phones. In an end-of-semester discussion in Siani’s class, I observed among the students that there was general agreement they were less interested now in posting or texting about the minutiae of their daily lives. And they had less interest in using social media to try to keep up with what everyone else was doing (which is a good thing since, as Siani notes, the ”comparison culture” created by social media is one of its more harmful effects).
When students do cut down on their use of social media, they can sometimes discover that very few people, if anyone, is hanging on their every post, text, or tweet. “Some of them realized that when they went off social media, no one even noticed,” Siani says. “That is humbling, but it’s a good thing. It shows them that they don’t really need to worry about posting all the time, which relieves a lot of their anxiety.”
Taking the Message to Younger Kids
As Siani’s final class of the spring semester concluded on a recent afternoon, her students — who had been through successive courses with her over a span of two years — tearfully hugged her as they said goodbye. After they’d left the room, Siani was asked what was next on her journey to try to help young people recover from the negative effects of digital socialization. She said one of the things she’d like to do is have an impact on younger kids — to reach them before digital socialization has done its damage.
Siani is affiliated with national groups such as Fair Play for Kids and the Screen Time Action Network, which are trying to effect policies that would bring more accountability to social media platforms and apps, with a particular focus on kids. “Social media is not regulated enough,” Siani says. “For example, there should not be anonymous apps where someone can go on the app and accuse you of almost anything. The accuser is not identified, so there is no accountability. That shouldn’t be allowed.”
Siani says she’s also approaching high school educators about bringing some of her insights and lessons into high schools. “I’d like to see programs there that would provide 10 weeks of skill-building to help younger kids learn how to better deal with social media,” she says.
She notes that there is an important role for parents to play in all of this by providing much-needed emotional support to kids dealing with a digital onslaught. But she cautions parents to avoid dramatic steps like taking away a child’s phone or prohibiting any type of social media use. “To force kids to suddenly disconnect can create problems,” Siani says. “Then they feel cut off, and they’re left with the anxiety of wondering, ‘What are people saying about me?’”
Instead, she says, “parents need to be more empathetic about what their kids are going through. Young people think their parents just don’t get how serious all of this is.” So parents can start by letting kids know that they’re sympathetic to the problems young people are dealing with on social media. “Parents can say, ‘Help me understand what you are going through with this. And you can tell me anything; I won’t go to the school about it.’ You have to develop that trust with them. The bottom line is, you don’t want them to be trying to handle this alone.”
Siani says there is one source of optimism for her: “My students are very concerned with the next generation — they want to make sure those kids don’t have to go through the same things they went through.” She is hoping they will become the next champions of a movement to deal with social media’s effects on children.
Indeed, as one student in Siani’s class remarked during the group discussion: “There need to be classes like this for younger kids — like, starting in middle school.”
Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, and the follow-up THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead. Warren’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, and he writes the “Questionologist” blog for Psychology Today. He lives in Mount Kisco. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy or visit his website amorebeautifulquestion.com.
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