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Want to Ease the Isolation of Social Distancing? Ask a Teenager

“Stay home.”

This suddenly universal call to maintain physical distance from other people, known as social distancing, is key to combating the spread of the coronavirus, according to health professionals. Yet the potential for unprecedented loneliness as people isolate themselves has spurred calls for maintaining social connections. As we shift our vocational and educational endeavors into the online world, we must also go virtual with many of our relationships to sustain our social lives.

One group knows how to do this better than any other: teens.

Changes in the importance and complexity of our social world largely define the teenage years. The current generation is growing up with cell phones, social media and an increasing number of ways to connect through technology. As a consequence, they are notorious for their affinity for screens. Teens’ use of technology tends to evoke negative sentiments, occasionally including the doom and destruction of a generation, despite the lack of conclusive data supporting this narrative. But now, as the coronavirus crisis infiltrates our daily lives, we all find ourselves turning to technology to maintain social connections. Who better to teach us than the people who know how to use it?

Although public perception is that screens are damaging this generation, most teenagers would actually tell you that technology helps them build positive relationships. A 2018 Pew Research Center report shows that 81 percent of teens believe that social media helps them feel more connected to their friends. Despite acknowledging some drawbacks, they report that social media supports their friendships and allows them to engage with individuals from various backgrounds, with differing viewpoints. 

Teens use a variety of technological means beyond just social media to keep in constant communication with their friends. Other modes of connection include text messaging, instant messaging, messaging on apps, phone calls, video chats, video gaming, and the list (believe it or not) goes on. In fact, 57 percent of teens have made new friends online. Meanwhile, the average American adult hasn’t made a new friend in five years. If maintaining meaningful human connection is what we are after, these data suggest that teens, more than adults, have the expertise to make that happen.

As we face a health crisis that alters the way we conduct our daily lives, teens might have solutions to some of the new problems we’re encountering. Today’s young people have already emerged as leaders, championing stances on major issues affecting us all such as climate change and gun control. High schoolers are now demonstrating the ability to adapt to the current conditions by planning virtual proms and looking ahead towards plans for graduation.

Parents have an opportunity to empower their kids and themselves as social distancing forces families to spend more time together under one roof. Rather than fear unknown future consequences of technology use, parents can start a dialogue with their children about how they use technology right now. Parents can encourage teens to teach the art of virtual camaraderie to them, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and others who could benefit from increased interaction while physically isolated. Giving young people the opportunity to teach may have added benefits of helping teens build their confidence, communication skills and cross-generational connections (beyond merely serving as tech support).

Let’s talk to young people. Let’s embrace the virtual communication skills they have cultivated and ask them to show the rest of us how they use technology to stay connected. Let’s give them the opportunity to help keep us close during social distancing.

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