“Social Downloading”: Three Tips to Teach Kids Appropriate Timing

Chris Social DownloadHave you ever come up with what you thought was a great therapeutic tool, only to discover your thinking on the topic needed a little more flushing out? This article is a great example of that and I am hoping it will get people thinking about this concept of a “social download” and what happens when we download on people who are not ready to receive the “data” we are wanting to share with them.

Over this past summer, we purchased new laptop computers for our office. They are working just fine, but I got a message the other day to download an update. I kept hitting, “remind me later” but the next day the reminder would pop up again. I did this for a few days until I got fed up and just decided to download the updates. So I had to stop the work I was doing and make my computer available to receive the data that was to be downloaded. The one thing that kept me somewhat emotionally regulated was the little window that let me know how much longer the download would take, so I had some idea as to when I would be able to get back to work. However, once the download was finished, I had to restart the computer! Would the delays ever end!!!

Even though it is an annoyance and can cause a slight delay in my work, I understand that a certain amount of “download time” is needed to help maintain the computer; the download was going to add to my computer’s capabilities. So as I was dealing with this annoyance (and at the same time reminding myself that I understood the why behind it), it got me thinking about several clinical cases I have recently been working on where the families were reporting the exact same story! However, instead of the download coming from a computer (or internet source), it was stemming from their child. Their child was trying to “socially download” information on to whoever was listening, because they thought it would add to their listener’s knowledge base. The parents were feeling the same type of frustration with their son’s/daughter’s “social” downloading because it was happening while they were trying to make dinner, talking on the phone with a friend, or through the bathroom door. So how do we move to a place where we better understand the function of the “social download,” and how can we help our children and clients understand the when and where of “social downloading” etiquette?

When a person “socially downloads,” what could be the function(s) of that behavior?
First off, they are communicating something. All behavior is just another form of communication. It can be argued it is not “effective communication,” but communication still needs to be understood as a possible function. Often, individuals “download” on a topic of immense interest, a thought they just can’t let go of, or they are using this verbal release as a way to start a conversation with someone who they think may be interested in listening. Often, the problem becomes the people they are hoping to “download on” are either 1). Not interested in gaining that particular knowledge or 2) it is not the right time or context for that particular data to be transferred.

I want to make it clear that we ALL “socially download” on people at some point. Another term for this may be to “unload” thoughts or feelings. Some of us download on our spouses, best friends, parents, etc. with the intent of getting something off our mind. This is not very different from the intent of children who socially download. There is no ill intent, and (even though sometimes it is hard to believe and their timing is totally off) they don’t mean to delay the fact you are trying to make dinner or use the bathroom. They have a thought that they need (or want) to get out and they think you will be interested in what they have to say about Minecraft (for the 100th time) or it will make you “smarter” about a certain topic. Many of my clients report that once they are able to “download” on or to someone, they feel better and can move on more easily with whatever may be coming next.

Many of our clients run into trouble when it comes to “downloading.”
The problem our clients struggle with is that they are not picking up on the right time or context in which to “socially download” on people. We have already highlighted a few very common examples of times at home when children may download on their parents. In school, I have had clients that have tried to download on the peer sitting next to them, in turn failing to see that the teacher was trying to get class started, and now he/she was being seen as the student holding up the entire class. This goes back to not using their social observation skills and “visual listening” skills to better determine the “who, what, when, where” aspects of getting a thought out.

They also fail to tap into these social behaviors to help determine when someone they are downloading on is having a negative emotional response. These types of responses can sometimes be hard to determine because, depending on how well you know the person, many people won’t come right out and tell the “downloader” to stop talking or that they don’t care about that subject. A negative response can be as simple as looking around the room instead of at the person talking, giving one word/clipped answers, or not showing signs of actively listening (nodding, adding comments, etc). It can be hard for many of our clients to pick up on these cues, therefore causing them to continue downloading on that person.

Here are three little tips I have used in both individual and group sessions, as well as when working with parents, that may help to bring a better understanding of the instances and process of “social downloading” and those social behaviors that should accompany a download.

1. Talk about my schedule vs. your schedule
If you are a parent of a child who you know just needs to “download” a certain amount to data to you, let them know when a good time would be for you to receive that data (or download). I have some families that have used the time of folding laundry, driving in the car, or emptying the dishwasher. These times may not fit their “downloading schedule,” however it will be the time that you are free to listen and available to take the download in. The other nice thing about setting the schedule around an activity is that with the three mentioned above, there comes a time when that activity is finished. Therefore, once that activity you are performing is over, the download needs to be complete.

2. Ask the question, “what are your eyes hearing right now from my face/body?”
I use this phrase in the middle of a download for two reasons. First, I can’t ask what their ears are hearing, because their ears are hearing them share something with you; they are hearing themselves talk and what’s the matter with that? Second, we have found that clients with various social learning challenges have a hard time picking up on non verbal cues. By helping individuals understand that our eyes can “hear things” other people are saying through their body and facial expressions, they will be more likely to integrate what their eyes are seeing and hearing to make behavioral (and social) adaptations. At first, you may have to say, “let me tell you what your eyes should be hearing from me”, and let your son/daughter/client know what your body is trying to say to them. They may be frustrated by this disruption, but over time it is our hope that a simple cue (e.g., eyes to listen) may help them to shift or pause their social downloading behaviors.

3. All downloads come to an end
I believe that individuals need to know when they are “downloading.” I also believe that individuals need to know that a certain amount of downloading is perfectly ok as long as they have a conversational partner who is ready and willing to receive their data. It allows a person to reboot (to use a computer term) and in some cases, allows the downloader to feel he/she is adding something to their social partner. However, all downloads come to an end.

I have had several clients say they appreciated the fact that I brought the idea of a social download to their attention, and talked about the length of time a download takes when happening on a computer. Establishing an end time for the download will be important. Going back to tip #1, you can create natural endings based on the time you allow the downloading to happen. It is important to work with individuals on how to communicate to others what they need to download and when they will be done. There may be times when they “need to download” something that, in their head may take five minutes, but ends up being more like 20. I think this is a critical skill that can be brought up to your school team and outside therapist, as this is both a social behavioral issue and an executive function issue (i.e., understanding elapsed time and self monitoring). I have talked with parents about putting in a system of reinforcement to help with both this communication piece and the self monitoring piece. For example, if Ben can communicate to me what he needs to download about (even if it is about what he did or wants to do later on Minecraft) and he ends with the amount of time that was agreed upon, he can earn extra Minecraft time. The important part to any program like this is to have your son/daughter/client tell you back the “why” he/she has earned something. This idea allows for both the download to be done and completed AND a feeling of reinforcement when they are successful in completing the download within a certain structure.

The social behavior of “downloading” is something we all do from time to time. It is about knowing the time and place in which to perform this verbal behavior and to be aware enough to understand if our social partner is ready and willing to receive the “data” we need to transfer to them. It is not about teaching our children or clients not to download, or that downloading is wrong, it’s about helping them to read the time and context which will allow for the download to happen and then to be able to move on. The social downloading behaviors will not change overnight, but it is our hope that over time, individuals will be able to modulate the where and when, and even allow others to download on them!!!

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Chris Abildgaard, NCSP, LPC, NCC About Chris Abildgaard, NCSP, LPC, NCC

Chris, Director of the Social Learning Center at Benhaven, holds a Graduate Certificate from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Behavioral Inventions in Autism and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist & Licensed Professional Counselor with a specialization in Autism Spectrum Disorders and social cognitive interventions. The Social Learning Center is dedicated to learning, understanding, applying and communicating effective methods of social teaching for each individual and those who support them.