Screens are preventing kids from practicing social skills — and it shows.
Children and teens who experience social anxiety — feeling discomfort or distress in social situations — or who are socially incompetent are at particularly high risk for developing dependence on electronic media. This is true whether the preferred activity is surfing the Internet, video gaming, or texting and social media use on a smartphone.1-3
Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., the author of Reset Your Child’s Brain, is an award-winning integrative child psychiatrist who specializes in children with complex or treatment-resistant mental health conditions. By combining conventional and complementary methods with lifestyle interventions, she aims to optimize treatment while minimizing the need for psychotropic medication.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
The more a child hides behind a screen, the more socially awkward he or she becomes, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. In contrast, a shy child who continually works at overcoming social anxiety is likely to overcome it.
In the past, the strong desire to belong to a social group during adolescence helped override resistance to social interaction, which would lessen over time simply due to practice. Nowadays, socially anxious or awkward children and teens aren’t forced to practice face-to-face and eye-to-eye interaction because some of their social needs are met online.
Thus, in socially anxious children, the ability to tolerate the physical presence of others never builds, and “walls” are erected instead to keep the child feeling safe. An adolescent with somewhat poor social skills in high school can easily become reclusive as a young adult, spending more and more hours online and less and less time interacting in real life.
This pattern makes it increasingly harder to make and keep friends. Problems show up at home, too; research indicates that the more time a child spends using the Internet, the less healthy the parent-child relationship becomes.4 Thus, social incompetence and screen-time represent a bidirectional relationship.
Interacting with teens and young adults with screen-related social anxiety can be awkward or even irritating: they tend to make poor eye contact, seem distracted or “not present,” or squirm with discomfort. Often, they seem apathetic and demonstrate passive body language, like a weak handshake. They can take long pauses before answering questions and may be unable to engage in meaningful, reciprocal conversation. When they do open up, they may not be able to follow longer or more nuanced questions because of a shortened attention span, they may not give others the sense of being “heard,” and they often can’t seem to “resonate with” or “mirror” the other person’s emotions.
A few years ago, I had a rather enlightening conversation with my then sixteen-year-old nephew about this very issue. We were sitting together at his sister’s high school graduation. The previous time I’d seen him, just six months earlier, he’d been his usual self—friendly, talkative, and high energy, but not able to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds. If your question was too long, you lost him. Forget about sharing something with him — he wasn’t listening.
This time, as we sat there, I was struck by a change in him. We were having a great conversation: he was listening to me, making eye contact, and responding without going off-topic. At first, I just thought, Wow, he’s really matured. However, as we talked about football, which he’d played that year for the first time, my nephew shared that his coach had instructed the team members to stop playing video games because he felt it affected their ability to focus during games, not to mention negatively impact grades — and therefore one’s “eligibility” to play sports.
My nephew said at first he only cut back on his gaming. Then, after realizing the difference it made, he quit completely. He said one of the first things he noticed was that he was suddenly able to talk to adults more easily, and he was speaking up more in class. He said that although he’d felt shy around his peers before, he’d found himself speaking up more in groups.
Needless to say, I was excited: here was a teen without a psychiatric disorder who’d quit playing video games on his own and was able to verbalize the changes in himself. His capacity for meaningful interaction had expanded dramatically.
Interestingly, my nephew then told me about one of his friends who was diabetic and sometimes faked being sick in order to miss school, either so he could play video games all day or because he’d been up late the previous night playing. (My nephew could “see” online when his friend was logged in to the game.) After quitting himself, my nephew became appalled by his friend’s behavior, especially when he learned that during those long gaming sessions his friend’s blood sugar would skyrocket.
As he finished telling me this story, my nephew said, “Plus, his handshake is really weak. It’s like a dead fish.” After imitating it, he said, “I mean, come on–who’d hire a guy like that?”
He’d hit the nail right on the head. Impressions are made in the blink of an eye, and young people with poor social skills will have trouble getting ahead in life. In stark contrast, as my nephew’s social skills improved, so did his awareness of their importance.
This ability to self-reflect is part of what helps children not just survive but thrive. In fact, at the end of the following year this formerly shy young man was chosen by his teachers to attend a leadership camp in Washington, D.C. I doubt this particular trajectory would have occurred had he continued to get his social needs met through online gaming.
Obviously, not every teen who gives up screens will develop leadership skills, but dramatic leaps in maturity in terms of conversational skills, eye contact capacity, and empathy or insight are not uncommon when devices are removed. It’s as though the brain has been held back and is suddenly liberated to develop as it should.
But what about younger kids — how do screens stunt or disrupt social development in them? In school-age children, social impairment related to electronic screen syndrome(ESS)* can manifest as poor sportsmanship when playing games, acting bossy or controlling, or being super competitive. (It doesn’t help that many video games reward competitiveness.) Kids with ESS often have a low frustration tolerance that results in meltdowns and a tendency to blame everyone but themselves. They may also hold grudges or attribute hostile motives to others where there are none, such as assuming a peer purposely bumped into them. All of these behaviors drive other children away.
Because social skills and mood regulation are dependent on good frontal lobe function, children with ESS often act much younger than their years, and they may be teased, bullied, or ostracized because of outbursts. Aside from the negative impact of screen-time on the brain’s frontal lobe, lack of eye contact, and face to face interaction, this dynamic occurs because screen activities tend to create a false experience of ease and success: electronic media offers immediate gratification, endless (and effortless) stimulation and entertainment, the ability to control one’s environment or one’s image, and the opportunity to be a hero — features that don’t reflect how things work in the real world. Real-life is much more difficult.
In short, screen-time makes children less able to tolerate disappointment and boredom, more entitled, and less willing to work — whether it be for school, at a job, or to improve a relationship. Is this really what we want for our children?