We know the scene all too well: family or friends sitting together but otherwise disconnected, with heads bowed over their individual devices. It’s increasingly common for our closest relationships to take a back seat to online connections. MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle calls the phenomenon Alone Together. “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy,” Turkle says. “Digital connections… offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.” 

While being alone together affects all ages, the risks are especially high for tweens and teens. That’s because adolescents are developmentally wired to learn social skills through real-life relationships. The resulting sense of belonging and connection to others is frequently recognized as the most significant predictor of teen mental health. Teenagers who have healthy relationships with family and friends are better able to manage stress and maintain mental and emotional well-being. 

The Role of Technology

According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General, technology can both enhance and detract from social connection. Potential harms include “technology that displaces in-person engagement, monopolizes our attention, reduces the quality of our interactions, and even diminishes our self-esteem.” The report notes that frequent phone use during face-to-face interactions is known to “increase distraction, reduce conversation quality, and lower self-reported enjoyment of time spent together in-person.” One study showed that those who use social media for more than two hours a day were about twice as likely to report feelings of social isolation as those who use social media for less than 30 minutes per day. 

But technology also provides social benefits, which include “providing opportunities to stay in touch with friends and family, offering other routes for social participation for those with disabilities, and creating opportunities to find community.” According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 80% of teens said social media helps them stay more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, 67% percent said it makes them feel like they have people who can support them through tough times, and 58% said it makes them feel more accepted. Experts agree that the challenge is figuring out how to balance the use of technology so we can reap the benefits without succumbing to the harmful effects.

How to Create Real Connection

Parents and caregivers can help tweens and teens learn to use technology in healthier ways and manage their social lives so they aren’t spending too much time alone together. Here are our top five tips for creating real connection:

1. Prioritize IRL relationships.

While online connections can provide some social support, they’re not as beneficial as real-life friendships. Tweens and teens need in-person relationships to develop critical social skills like active listening, reading social cues and resolving conflict. Keep in mind that researchers say having having just one or two close friendships can be just as good as or better than having a large group of friends. Emphasize quality over quantity.

2. Use technology that supports emotional regulation and connection.

Not all social media and devices are created equal. Resources like Lucero help teens learn emotional regulation skills, strengthen relationships and maintain mental health and overall well-being. Help your tween or teen pay attention to how their technology use makes them feel. Do they feel affirmed and supported, or are they experiencing loneliness, FOMO, or conflict? Encourage technologies that make them feel more present, capable of regulating their emotions, and connected to others who support them.

3. Create alternatives to screen time.

Part of the lure of digital devices is that they’re so accessible. When we’re feeling lonely, it’s easier to pick up our phones and scroll through TikTok than it is to call a friend and invite them to go for a walk. Be intentional about offering tweens and teens opportunities to cultivate genuine connections, like planning a fun outing or game night and inviting their friends.

4. Eat meals together.

The simple act of sitting down to a meal with family or friends – device free – may be one of the most powerful ways to counter the negative effects of being “alone together.” A recent study found that social eating – meals enjoyed with chosen company, including family and/or friends – were strongly associated with reduced stress, anxiety and depression in adolescents. Researchers also say that eating meals together enhances peer acceptance, problem-solving skills and overall well-being. Instead of feeling lonely in the midst of friends and family, they have a consistent source of social support and true belonging.

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