As a mom of two high school seniors, a high school freshman and a first-grader, my priority has been to maintain some semblance of routine and normalcy during this drastic life change. My first-grader struggled most with the abrupt halt to school. I gave him lots of hugs and reassurance that things are stable in his world, even though I knew they are anything but.
During this time, I received a flurry of requests from fellow first-grade parents inviting my son to join their kids on something called Messenger Kids, a simplified, kid version of Facebook Messenger. I’d never heard of it and was intrigued but also wary of starting my son on a social media app. He was happily spending those first few days out of school playing, cuddling and enjoying being at home, but the novelty was wearing off quickly.
As the days pressed on, he started to really miss his friends, school, classmates and simple things like playing on the playground. Feelings of loss set in, so I looped back to the Messenger Kids requests. It seemed like a good way for him to stay connected to his peeps beyond the occasional FaceTime.
Turns out I was wrong.
At first, he was thrilled to video chat and send and receive funny selfies or photos of pets with his fellow first-graders, but he quickly began feeling the burden of upkeep.
He would leave the iPad to play outside with his three older brothers and come back to 50 notifications. I knew these kids were craving connection and feeling out of sorts just like my son, but it got out of hand, and turned into a source of him feeling overwhelmed. My son would be playing on the floor at my feet and I’d ask him if he got back to so-and-so who kept messaging. He’d put his head down and with an exasperated tone to his voice say, “No, I’ll get back to her later,” or “I’ll video chat with him tomorrow,” but he never did.
After a one-hour period that included 42 notifications, he became increasingly angst-ridden over what we as adults grapple with daily — social media overload. There were even tears when one friend repeatedly requested to video chat. It was too much for our little guy to juggle.
I’ve learned that what we were experiencing isn’t unusual. Emily King is a psychologist in Raleigh, N.C., who works with children and adolescents and is a mom of two school-age boys. “Young children do not yet have the executive functioning or planning skills to manage platforms with notifications and responses,” she says. “This is why we, as parents and teachers, provide structure for them at these ages in social development. We don’t plan a whole-day play date with no rules. … We schedule a play date that has a host and a guest in a certain time frame and kids do their thing within that time frame.”
King also says that repeated notifications on a device are the virtual equivalent of a child asking repeatedly, “Do you want to play?” “Even in person, young children do not consistently have the skill to tell a friend they do not want to play,” she says. “Many times, teachers and parents are coaching young children to make kinder responses to ‘Do you want to play?’ with ‘Not now, maybe later.’ ”
A good rule of thumb for parents, King says, is to help your child navigate virtual communication just as you would support them at the playground. If they don’t yet have the skills to reply to a notification, parents can model it for them. If they are emotionally overwhelmed, then they are not ready to interact this way just yet.
We learned that keeping up with the eight kids our son was connected to was unwieldy for him, so when other parents started pinging us with invitations to connect, we put a pause on the whole thing until we figured out a healthy balance.
As we navigate the new normal of remote everything, I’ve realized younger kids aren’t little adults. What we find challenging ourselves is magnified tenfold for them. That includes information overload. Couple this with routine life as we knew it evaporating overnight, and you’ve got a potential meltdown on the horizon.
Our kids are grieving. They are feeling stress. They are worried about their health and that of their family, friends and teachers. It is not a normal experience to have all of society come to an abrupt halt, and we need to filter things through this lens when we make decisions for our little ones during this time.
Not every kid will be stressed by the same things, but it’s important to realize that what may seem like a good idea to us might not be the best choice in the long run for our kids. Weigh the cost/benefit to your child and their ability to cope. Is the connectivity helping or hurting your child and their mental health? It may help them if you put limits on their connections.
And, remember, it’s fine to adjust as you go. “Perhaps we said ‘yes’ to something last week, but now we see that it’s not going to work, or it’s not safe for our child’s well-being,” King says. “It’s okay to say to our children, ‘I thought this was going to be fun for you, but now that we’ve tried it, it’s pretty stressful, so let’s make a new plan.’ Then come up with a way of virtual socializing that does work for them. This might be in planning virtual get-togethers with only one other child, only certain times a day, or when there is a structured activity to play online together.”
Observe what works and what doesn’t for your child. It’s important for our kids to feel connected, but how they do that, how frequently and with how many people may vary. Social connections are crucial to mental wellness, King says, but everyone varies in how much interaction they need to feel connected. “Check in with your child about how their virtual social connections feel and don’t be afraid to keep adapting the plan until it works for them,” she says.
Noted. A few weeks in, we have found a good balance with the handful of kids he’s connected with. We avoid connections in the evenings, when he’s exhausted and more emotional. And we’ve told him that he doesn’t have to respond every time he gets a notification. For him, it’s less kids, less frequency, and he’s good. And him feeling calm and happy works for all of us.
Laura Richards is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts. She writes about parenting, lifestyle and health. Find her on Twitter @ModMothering.