Five Tips to Ease Kids’ Social Reentry

Tavyev’s strategies include:

Staying engaged at home. Tavyev, also an assistant professor of Pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai, pointed out that kids who turned 2 or 3 during the pandemic might have little experience interacting with people who don’t have masks on. “We can’t just give up masks,” Tavyev said, “so that places more impetus on the family to disconnect from their screens and interact with children face to face.”

Trying to curb screen time. Children’s own screen time can also present a challenge. “If kids’ social interaction is being replaced with screen time, you could have exponentially more work in front of you,” said Tavyev. “You’re going to have to break that addiction before they will want to go out to do social things.”

Encouraging sports and games. Organized sports and other types of play—most of which happen outdoors—can help replace screen time and ease children back into social situations. “It’s something social, but lightly social,” said Tavyev. “It isn’t two hours of intense personal interaction, like a birthday party might be.” For children who aren’t attracted to team sports, Tavyev suggested activities such as martial arts classes or swimming, which are individual pursuits but still happen in a group. Younger children might enjoy group play with balls or parachutes, she said.

Letting younger children learn from conflict. When younger kids do come together, the occasional tussle if two reach for the same toy is a learning opportunity. “If they’ve only been interacting with friends on screens, you’re at home with your Legos and they’re at home with their Legos, so no negotiation has to take place,” Tavyev said. She recommended that parents let children older than 2 or 3 work out in-person conflicts for themselves. “Tell them you believe they can figure this out, whisper ideas and encouragement, but don’t come in and be the mediator,” she said.

Putting fears into perspective for older children. “For children who are feeling awkward and afraid at school or with peers, talk through the worst-case scenario,” Tavyev said. “Encourage them to imagine what might happen. Maybe they’re going to say something foolish. Maybe people will laugh at them. Whatever it is, play it out. Then stop and ask, ‘Was that so bad? Is that something that you truly could not recover from?'”

While some conflict, awkwardness and uncertainty is to be expected, Tavyev advised parents and teachers to be on the lookout for children determined to avoid interaction with others.

“If younger children aren’t showing an interest in their peers, and that is accompanied by language delay and repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, it’s time to seek help because those are signs of autism,” she said. “Parents should also seek help for an older child who was previously interested in social activity and seems to have lost their interest, because this might be a sign of depression.”

Tavyev also encouraged parents to take heart, because everyone is in the same boat. And while the brain’s ability to grow and change is at its height during the first three years of life, neuroplasticity persists well into adulthood.

“Social interaction, comfortable distance while talking, and all kinds of subtle, nuanced things have probably changed for billions of people around the world,” said Tavyev. “So even if children have missed out on certain social things, it could be that some of those things are going to become obsolete anyway. How will that change this generation of children? I honestly have no idea, but they’re all in it together.”

Technology and Children: A Parent’s Survival Guide

Technology has changed the way children develop and interact with others, and while it seems to change every day, many parents are forced to keep up or get left behind.

Jessica Mirman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences, says that, even though much of technology can receive a bad representation, it is not inherently bad.

“Parents can be pretty sophisticated with technology when it comes to helping their children develop,” she said. “There are a variety of apps that can help with literacy skills. Especially for children with developmental disabilities, technology can be very helpful at home and in the classroom.”

Play it safe

Mirman says technology can be a distraction and a safety hazard across developmental periods.

“Parents need to be aware of what kinds of devices are in their homes and vehicles,” she said.

Whether it is about accidentally swallowing button batteries, the tiny batteries often found in musical greeting cards, games, Christmas ornaments and cameras, or the risks of texting and driving, Mirman suggested that parental vigilance can save lives.

“For example, button batteries are small, shiny, and very appealing to infants and toddlers who may try to ingest them,” she said. “Parents need to keep these and other batteries out of reach and keep devices secure with openings kept shut.”

The types of technology risks can change with age. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving. That creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads.

“We always worry about when teens, and parents too, are glued to their phones while driving,” Mirman said. “There is also teen driver safety research that says when parents are calling, teens feel that they are expected to answer, even while driving. Parents need to remember to practice what they preach and model healthy technology habits at home and in the vehicle.”

What’s trending?

Social media is another way technology changes how people develop, according to Mirman. She says social media is a good tool to keep people connected; but there are guidelines and boundaries parents need to set, starting again, with practicing what they preach.

“Parents should practice moderation and respect for others on social media,” Mirman said. “Kids are very observant, and they will pick up on what parents do and often mimic those behaviors.”

She says children and teenagers are quick to point out any hypocrisy in parents.

Widespread and improved mobile technology means teens can access social media more easily. According to a Pew survey conducted during 2014 and 2015, 94 percent of teens who go online using a mobile device do so daily.

Mirman says parents who monitor their children’s social media usage need to start early to develop a foundation of trust with their teens. Parents cannot be around all the time, and teenagers will need to understand why they need to follow the rules, even when Mom and Dad are not watching.

“If an older child or teen really wants to get their hands on something online, they will likely find a way to do it,” Mirman said. “That is why parents need to be clear about their reasoning for why the rules are in place and not just be an enforcer of the rules.”

Screen time

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 18 months should avoid the use of screen media. Between ages 18 months and 24 months, some screen-time can be introduced, with parental supervision. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, a maximum of one hour a day is recommended. For children above the age of 6, consistent time limits should be established.

Marcela Frazier, O.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, says the amount of screen time a child has can have a negative impact on their eyesight.

“The more time children spend on devices, the less time they spend outdoors, and spending time outdoors could slow down the progression of nearsightedness, which is becoming more and more prevalent in children,” Frazier said. “Prolonged exposure to the screens of devices can cause eye fatigue, eye irritation and headaches due to the increased demand on the visual system and the tendency to not blink while using them.”

Frazier says adults usually report symptoms like eyestrain, dryness, headaches and eye irritation after prolonged use of near devices; however, children may experience these issues and not be able to communicate them accurately. Parents may notice some signs of eye irritation and fatigue related to screen-time in children manifested as excessive blinking, squinting, watery eyes, red eyes and some eye-rubbing.

The flip side

Mirman says much research has been done involving children and technology, but what happens when the parents are addicted to tech?

“If parents are distracted, they can’t pay attention to their children,” Mirman said. “Kids notice this quickly.”

She says, by being distracted with technology, parents can make their children feel rejected or unimportant. A more fluid boundary between home and work can add to that distraction.

Finding a remedy

Mirman says technology can be good, if used in moderation. Many kids can use age-appropriate video games as positive stimulants, and can use them as a way of positive social interaction with online multiplayer games. This can be especially helpful for socially marginalized children and teens.

“A lot of kids can make positive connections with others through multiplayer games or social media that they may not necessarily make in person,” she said.

She says it is important for families to create a positive culture around the phones and devices, and practice what she calls “phone hygiene.”

“Developing healthy habits is important not just for you but for the well-being of the entire family,” she said.

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