The choice seems easy. On the one hand, Gabe’s mom nags him about homework, and his little sister destroys his Lego creations. On the other hand, he has online gaming friends who share his interests. They chat about sports teams and video games for hours. They have never met in person, but Gabe believes they are his best friends.
This is the scary truth for so many parents today. Their children are more immersed in the virtual world than the real one. Younger kids are obsessed with getting to the next level in a video game. Older kids love to post selfies and videos online.
The internet can be a great platform for expressing creativity and staying connected with loved ones. However, it can be today’s version of stranger danger. Furthermore, it’s simply not healthy for kids to spend more time online than off. If that’s a problem in your family, here are a few ways to guide your kids into valuing real-life connections more.
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1. Encourage Outdoor Play
While the internet poses a variety of perils, that’s not to say that nothing bad can happen in the real world. However, there may be fewer challenges when you can see the person with whom your child is interacting. At least you know where the neighbor down the road lives. In the online world, you have no idea if Joker2343 really is a 10-year-old boy or a 45-year-old sex offender.
Parents should encourage real-life connections from a young age. Take your kids to the park or supervise them as they play with the neighbors. Don’t let the weather keep you cooped up inside. Let the children enjoy fresh air as much as possible.
As they grow older, they will want to ride their bikes around the block or shoot some hoops nearby. You can get them a kids GPS watch so that you know their location at all times. Yes, it can be a scary world out there. But if your children know your safety rules, they can enjoy a mostly carefree childhood with real friends.
2. Help Them Develop Their Social Skills
Many kids today do not know how to carry on a conversation in real life. They’ll wave a quick hi and bye to adults, and that’s about it. Ask older kids about current world events, and you might get a shrug or a monosyllable response. Dwindling attention spans have been a cause for concern for both teachers and parents. How can kids be expected to watch a 30-minute history video in class when they are used to six-second TikToks?
If screen time is limited from a young age, kids will have to interact more with others. When they know they cannot use a tablet on weeknights, they just might play cards with Grandma instead. If access to social media is postponed, they could make lasagna with Dad — then actually eat it rather than staging it. They need to learn to live in the moment and not have to record everything in the name of “content.”
Parents must teach children not to rely on strangers on the internet. An online friend can just disappear one fine day — poof! However, if a real friend doesn’t come to school, it’s an opportunity to teach empathy. Show your child how to reach out to them with a phone call or a card. Have them find out whether their classmate is sick and offer to help the patient catch up with missed work.
3. Boost Their Self-Esteem
Around 60% of teens spend time with friends online daily. In contrast, only 24% get together with friends in person every day outside of school. These numbers are dismaying for parents of pre-teens and teens. This is because, when online, people tend to show only the best sides of themselves. Overly filtered photos and FOMO-sparking posts about parties and vacations can adversely affect both boys and girls. They start believing that they and their lives aren’t good enough.
Real-life interactions can show kids that others their age can also have acne and bad hair days. They’ll discover their friends’ lives contain as many bad gym classes as beachside vacays. Help your child understand that no one is as perfect as the photos they post online. By pulling back the curtain on faux social media perfection, you’ll help them feel comfortable in their own skin.
4. Explore New Activities
When screen time is regulated, kids are more open to trying new things. They might pick up a new musical instrument or try out for a sport. Such extracurricular activities provide far more benefits than chatting with strangers online. Attending football practice in the cold will help them build resilience. Activities like pottery can teach patience and improve self-esteem when they create something with their hands.
Even if you don’t have the time or resources to enroll your kids in structured activities, real-life connections are still crucial. Just braiding their hair in the morning or reading with them before bed can be a comforting bonding time. The power of touch from a loved one is magical — and something you cannot get online.
Children hear with their eyes. When parents prioritize get-togethers with family and friends, they send a powerful message. They show their children that breaking bread with loved ones is much more valuable than sending an emoji in a text.