This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
Many children are struggling to find their footing in the land of virtual friendships, one that involves unfamiliar technology and face-to-face communication skills online.
By Kelly Hoover Greenway — May 19, 2020
Since entering the world of pandemic parenting, I’ve found most of my kids’ behaviors to be reasonably predictable. For example, I knew my strong-willed 8-year-old would not love having me as his teacher; that my attached-at-my-hip 4-year-old would be especially clingy; and that they would both be asking me seemingly nonstop for a snack or to watch a TV show. This has all checked out. But there has been one behavior that has left me puzzled: their disinterest (and often downright disdain) for communicating with their friends online.
Our situation is different; we moved from Los Angeles to Austin the day before stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March. Because my kids can’t make new friends yet, I assumed they would want to communicate with their pals back home for some kid camaraderie. I was wrong.
From a Zoom birthday party for my eldest’s best friend that ended with him yelling at me in tears as he angrily slammed down the laptop, to virtual circle time with my youngest’s former preschool, where I’m often left singing “Little Red Caboose” by myself because he’s hiding under my pajamas, my kids have gone from being social butterflies to retreating into their snack-filled cocoons at the mere mention of “seeing” their friends. Do they not miss them? Is it too confusing to see them after we just said goodbye? I wanted to understand why they might be feeling this way, and if there was anything I could do to salvage peer connection during our quarantine time at home.
I asked Joshua Castillo, a Los Angeles-based parenting coach and early childhood consultant, “Am I the only one who’s kids hate this?”
“Not at all,” she said. “It’s the dirty secret of parenting right now. Everyone’s pretending their kids are successfully doing Zoom calls, but that’s not what I’m seeing with my clients.”
Castillo noted that out of the 15 families she’s working with — with preschool-to elementary-aged children — only about a third of the kids enjoy communicating with their friends on video. All the experts I spoke to agreed on this; many kids are struggling to find their footing in the land of virtual friendships. They also believe that technology itself may be at the core of the issue.
“The virtual system is so new to many of these children, and there’s a lack of control that comes with the technology piece that makes it that much harder to engage child-to-child,” said Dr. Lori Baudino, a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development. Dr. Baudino cites her daughter as an example. “She’ll often start talking to me or doing other things during a Zoom call if it’s not ‘her turn’ to speak. It’s very much an ‘all or nothing’ thing for them where they feel if they aren’t the one speaking, they don’t exist.”
My kids had never tried Zoom before now and I didn’t prepare them on how to properly use it. Truthfully, I barely know myself. I have watched several calls among my 8-year-old and his friends in which he became laser-focused on trying to change his virtual background, paying no attention at all to what his friend is saying on the other end of the screen. With all the distractions that come from trying to gain mastery of the technology, it’s understandable why forging a connection may be challenging. To help with this, Dr. Baudino recommended giving kids the time to get comfortable with the platforms they’re using to communicate before they need to use them with a friend.
Another challenge for kids is how to interact. “It’s easy for parents to forget that kids aren’t yet experts at small talk,” said Courtney Bolton, Ph.D., a Nashville-based child family psychologist and parenting coach. “We coach them on how to talk to adults, but not as much with peer interaction.” Meaning, when we plop them in front of the screen and say, “Hey, it’s time to Zoom with your best friend, have fun!” with no activity or conversation starter to guide them, some kids don’t know how to begin and can quickly get frustrated or lose interest.
Dr. Bolton recommended taking some time to discuss potential questions they can ask their friends ahead of time, ideally centered on common interests. She also encouraged giving kids a “code word” so that they have a way to communicate with you if they’re feeling uncomfortable or need you to intervene and also providing them with a “polite cover story” when they’re ready to stop but their friend may not be. Ending chats with short and true reasons — like “it’s time for lunch” or “my sister needs to use the computer” — is a completely acceptable tool for them, Dr. Bolton said.
“Even though it would be polite to end with, ‘It’s been nice talking to you; I have to go now,’ the person chatting may ask why your child has to go. This can make the ending drawn out and awkward for your child,” she said.
Dr. Baudino explained, “There’s a learning curve to how we form relationships over the internet.”
Castillo added that’s also true for adults, though we may not recognize it. “Most of the time, when adults are on these Zoom chats, they’re not just talking,” she said. Castillo referenced drinking wine, eating snacks or even quarantine’s favorite pastime of baking bread as common “coping mechanisms” we employ during our virtual hangs. We do this, “to have what equates to a grown-up lovey helping us cope with our feelings of being away from our friends.” Castillo added, “I don’t see people thinking about that for children. They think, ‘Oh, you’re looking at your friend, and that should make you happy,’ but in reality, without the proper tools, it may just be “reminding them of what they’re lacking,” which is a physical connection.
When my kids first bonded with their friends in person, they didn’t sit and stare at each other and talk about the weather. Connection and community came from a shared interest. Whether it was trading Pokemon cards, shooting hoops or even a game of tag, friendships were forged through play. To that end, all three experts recommended having an interactive activity as the main focus of any virtual get-together. “The best play dates, even virtual ones, are centered around an activity,” Dr. Bolton said.
With that in mind, I tried something new with my 8-year-old son a few days ago. His former soccer team sent me a note that they were doing a Zoom hangout with the boys and would love for him to join. “If all the parents are OK with it, I’d like to do a scavenger hunt,” his coach said. If it meant my son would participate, I was more than OK with it. We signed on, and I watched as he scanned the row of familiar faces. He said very little at first, even when a couple of his friends asked what Texas was like, he responded “it’s fine” or “it’s hot.” I feared he would be ready to hang up soon after. And then the game began. After two rounds of running through our house at breakneck speed, he landed next to me, breathless and holding a sock, a spoon, his brother’s shoe, and a piece of toilet paper. Grabbing my hand, he exclaimed, “Who says you can’t have fun during quarantine!”
Then he asked if he could do it again the next day.