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This article was co-authored by Samantha Hill, M.S, Erica Ciarciello, B.S. and Erin Malafronte, B.A. All are Clinical Associates of the Social Learning Center and have trained, worked and collaborated with Mr. Abildgaard on effective social cognitive interventions for individuals with social learning challenges. They will be heading a program addressing the social advantages and pitfalls of social media in the summer of 2014.

Over the past several months, through our counseling sessions and social cognitive groups, we have been exploring this evolving concept of “social”, of “being social” and “making connections”. Through our training and various clinical experiences, we have discussed the concept of “social” as being marked by interpersonal experiences that happen when people share physical space with each other. In reflecting back on our own development, we had friends over on the weekend, we played outside, many may have played on sports teams or were part of a club/organization, we took trips with friends, and some of us spent a great deal of time talking on the phone with another person we have shared physical space with. Interpersonal relationships were defined as creating connections with other people in this “face-to-face world”.

Yet for many of our clients with social learning challenges, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Disorder/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), Executive Function Deficits, etc., the notion of extending their involvement into this “face-to-face world” outside their school or work day is extremely overwhelming. They are expected to be “social” while in the classroom, in the cafeteria, while in a meeting with their boss, etc. All the while, they are trying to process the social rules for that setting and which one’s they may or may not be breaking (this is of course if they have the social awareness to do so). Many individuals with these social hurdles have experienced so many social letdowns that just the thought of spending more “face-to-face” time with people is extremely anxiety provoking, and to some, aversive. Yet, some attempt to persevere to make the best of their current situations and attempt to socially engage with others. However, when their level of anxiety around social interactions overtake their emotional desire to connect with people, we see individuals withdrawal, begin to engage in maladaptive behaviors and possibly develop signs of depression. So if we need to have a certain percentage of time with “face-to-face” interactions (such as when in the classroom), is there a balance with something else that can still promote “connections”?

With the advent and reliance on the social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, on line gaming, etc.) in today’s world, we as clinicians, parents, and teachers may need to redefine how we are thinking about interpersonal relationships and our understanding of how individuals make social connections may need to be adjusted. This is a very hard concept for many to wrap their heads around because it is so different from what we have grown up thinking. As professionals in the field, we are currently working with a number of clients, of all ages and genders, who are talking more and more about connecting with others in this cyber world and finding comfort and success. One of the reasons for this is because being “logged on” has become the social norm and as they put it, it gives them a sense of “normality”.

When exploring the “why” behind their choice to connect with people on line using social media, through on line games, etc, there are a couple of common responses:
1. They share my same interest
2. They get me
3. They don’t criticize my weird interests
4. It is easier for me to “talk” to a screen rather that a person.
5. I tried to find others in my school who liked what I liked but just couldn’t

Although these are all valid responses, what we are finding is that many of our clients are getting overly excited about the idea of “connecting” that

1). it becomes an obsession to be online and

2). some of the choices they make in terms of who and how they are interacting with those online may be unhealthy.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to address the concepts underlying the nature of today’s “social world” and if it does rely on a certain amount of “online connecting”, how can we help to facilitate healthy choices in socially connecting online. This idea of a “healthy online connection” is not always at the forefront of the individual’s mind. Often they are enamored by the fact that they “found people like me”. Yet, addressing those hidden social rules and teaching how to use our virtual observation skills (using both our eyes and interpretation skills to make smart guesses as to what others may be thinking) is key in fostering healthy online connections. There is also a part that we as parents and clinicians need to become comfortable with – we need to understand that online connections are real and it’s not about “stopping them” but it’s about fostering social media competencies in those who are choosing to use social media as a bridge to social connections.

Below are three key tips for parents, counselors, and teachers to be thinking about when teaching how to promote healthy online connections in today’s social world:

Tip #1: Recognize the Connection

It has become socially acceptable in today’s world to meet, (re)connect, and communicate with others online. Online dating has lead to countless successful marriages and relationships, Facebook and Twitter have made it easier than ever to find and stay connected with friends from the past and share our lives with people and LinkedIn has even brought social media into the work place in a productive manner. Social media is here to stay and there is no generation that understands this more so than today’s preteens and teens. What comes with these new avenues for connecting are new types relationships? Many individuals with social learning challenges have found this way of connecting and creating relationships online much less stressful and more internally rewarding than person-to-person relationships. This is not to say that they (and everyone else) do not struggle with the different cues and rules that come with carrying on a relationship or friendship online, however armed with the proper support and tools individuals can have successful friendships and relationships that begin online.

The first step is for parents, teachers and clinicians to recognize that these connections are real. To their children, students and clients, they are very real; some may think these relationships are better and more satisfying than their person-to-person relationships. If you are worried about your child’s Internet friendship or relationship, first validate that this is a real connection. Your child will be less likely to be defensive if he or she feels like you are open to their relationship. This would be a good opportunity to talk to your child about what he or she thinks is important in a relationship or what they are looking for in a friend while understanding that your child’s view of friendships and relationships could be much different than your own perception.

Second, attempt to get your child to talk about this person and why he or she likes them. What is the basis of their relationship? What are their likes and dislikes (e.g., do they have a people file on these new found “friends”). Did they meet on an online game, a gaming site, Facebook? Getting a broader picture of your child’s online life can help you to understand their relationship as more than ‘chatting’ with a stranger. Talking about what is safe communication and how to look for warning signs could also be helpful to discuss.

Tip #2: Change Your Environment & Adjust Your Routine

A lot of concern surrounding social media and the evolving technology dates back to the fear of the unknown. Our younger generations are being introduced and exposed to materials and devices that we as parents, teachers and clinicians often know little to nothing about. How can we instruct and protect them from unknown hurdles and obstacles that we ourselves find foreign?

To help elude the fear of what your child may be doing or encountering online, place your computer in a populated or public room of your house, like a kitchen or family room. This helps to alleviate the question of what is actually happening on the computer, and opens the door for discussion if questionable choices are being made. If your son or daughter already have a personal lap top or computer in their room, suggest or implement, “Computer Time,” so as to avoid their using any particular device for unhealthy chunks of time. Suggest dual computer time, where you and your child sit down at the computer and review emails or do work. This engages you in your child’s personal interests, as well as creates more opportunity for discussion and evaluation. Model through your own experience, by sharing emails that you yourself have received and demonstrate perspective taking. Say something like, “My coworker wrote this; I think this is what they meant. What do you think they’re thinking about?”

Integrate strategies and routines to make technology and social media more accepted and familiar in your home. Establish group computer time, that is consistent on a daily basis. This will put your household on the same schedule, making time for personal computer use, and freeing time for face to face interaction. Leave a basket in the kitchen for family members to drop cell phones in during family time, such as dinner or a movie. Encourage members of your extended family to create Facebook or Twitter accounts of their own, and “friend,” your child. This way they can help monitor your child’s activity and understanding of social media, and discuss both healthy and unhealthy interactions. Such routines and consistency across your child’s various social contexts will aid in their executive functioning skills, as a result of the break down and time management of their day.

Tip #3: Education and an Online Approach to Learning

More and more classrooms are taking on a technology dependent type of teaching and learning. Students, especially in middle and high school, are usually making power points for class presentations, typing papers on the computer, and emailing assignments instead of turning in a hard copy. Some schools are also developing or have developed a system where parents can check their child’s grade online. With the reliance on technology and media increasing even more in schools, we can use it as an opportunity to gear discussions and assignments toward promoting and encouraging “healthy” habits when being social on the internet.

Many web-based current event articles, various educational blogs, etc. have a “comment” section at the end (Much like the one you will find at the end of this article). The comment section is usually where people share their thoughts/reactions/opinions on whatever the article topic may be. One example of how teachers can utilize social media and online discussion in the classroom is to find an article on current events or politics for student(s) to read that has a comment section at the bottom (just be sure to screen all the comments ahead of time!) This could then inspire a discussion about both the article topic along with others’ comments typed at the bottom. Ask students what they think the comments may mean. The discussion could then lead into – if it’s easier or harder to tell someone’s point of view or thoughts when they are typed rather than if you are talking to them face-to face.

Another idea is for teachers to create a class email or discussion board for students to turn in assignments or post questions/comments. This can:

1) help a student realize that teachers recognize that the internet is a way to connect with people and

2) open up more discussions about how to frame questions or comments when you are typing something to your teacher as opposed to your friend. Does your “typing tone” change depending on who you are talking to?

For a subject like math, create an assignment for students to record and graph the number of hours they spend on Facebook (or another social media) everyday for a week. They could then survey other students and see how much other students use Facebook compared to how much they do, and create another graph of the average number of hours other students are spending on it. They could also compare how many of their “Facebook friends” they actually know in real life to other students and how well they may know their “Facebook friends.” They could write a little report comparing their findings. For students who are not on Facebook, a similar assignment can be done tracking time they spend playing a particular video game, etc. An assignment like this can help students, especially those who “get” graphs and math, begin to build an awareness of how other students may be using Facebook (or other on line sources) in a different way than they are.

Integrating online assignments and discussions based around social media can be a great tool to assist in promoting “healthy” ways to both use and be social on the internet. These strategies may be used to tackle such social concepts such as perspective taking (is it easier or harder to tell someone’s perspective online? what do you think this person is trying to say here?), social communication (what are some different ways of communicating? how do you usually communicate with others via the on-line world?), and even helping individuals to understand the “bigger picture” of saying things online (the “once it’s online, anyone can see it and have thoughts about it”).

In closing, it is important for all individuals to know that they can be supported and understood when it comes to their choice to create online connections. Validating their relationships—online and person-to-person—is the first step for mutual respect for all pre-teens and teens. Encouraging safe and healthy communication is essential. From our experiences, banning social media or your child from communicating with a certain person rarely works. Instead try to understand where they are coming from and allow them some independence to make mistakes and make their own judgments. This is a scary process but they’ll need these skills later in life!!!