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Is Technology Changing the Way Kids Develop Relationships?

Are Facebook "friends" really friends?

Popular culture and technology are redefining the meaning of relationships; what relationships are, how they develop and are maintained, and how many relationships we can have. Popular culture, for example, suggests that love can be found in a few weeks on shows like The Bachelor, real family’s lives mirror shows such as Kate Plus 8 and the Real Housewives franchise, and friendships and school life are like those on Nickelodeon. 

In turn, technology has enabled people who have never met nor will ever meet to call themselves friends and the line between connections, acquaintances, and real friends has become blurred, as happens on Facebook. We have entered a new era of relationships in which the rules and practices that have guided the development, maintenance, and termination of relationships for eons are being rewritten. This crazy new world of relationships is the one in which your children are learning about all about relationships with family, friends, and others.

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Because of popular culture’s and technology’s omnipresence in the lives of most children, both are shaping how children perceive, feel about, and develop relationships without adequate consideration of the impact that they have on children’s relationships. Because of this growing influence of popular culture and technology on them, it’s incumbent on you to really understand where your children are learning about relationships and whether what they are learning is healthy and will lay the groundwork for a future of positive and life-affirming relationships.

It’s essential to recognize these changes because relationships play such a central role in who children become and the quality of the lives they lead. Relationships provide children with a foundation of values, love, security, and support. They are critical in the establishment of children’s self-esteem and attitudes toward others. The quality of children’s early relationships act as the template on which their future relationships are modeled and built. The relationships that children establish early in their lives become the safe harbors from which they can explore their ever-expanding world. Later relationships with peers, teachers, and other influential people shape children’s beliefs about the world and the direction that their lives will take. Also, as ample research has demonstrated, relationships are the single greatest predictor of happiness. In fact, there is no aspect of children’s lives that remains untouched by relationships.

Think of it this way. Do you want your children to learn about the meaning of love from The Bachelorette, about families from Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or friendship from Gossip Girls? Do you want your children to have 100 Facebook “friends,” learn about sex from pornography web sites, or experience cyberbullying though text messages? I’m going to assume the answer to all of these questions is an emphatic “No!” Ensuring that your children develop healthy attitudes toward relationships is a fundamental contributor to raising healthy and happy children in the 21st century (as it has been in past centuries).

I don’t see much of anything healthy what popular culture brings to relationships. Most of the messages that children get about relationships while watching most television shows or movies or reading celebrity and fashion magazines, for example, are entirely out of touch with the reality of children’s relationships. Also, time spent engaged in the many media of popular culture is time not spent engaged in the work of building real-life relationships. I encourage you to be aware of what messages your children are getting from popular culture about relationships and make deliberate decisions about whether you want your children to get those messages.

At the same time, many of the changes in relationships instigated by technology have been positive and productive. Online communities based around shared passions and ideas are a vital wellspring of information and action. Causes have been fomented and movements launched  through the Internet. New technology has enabled people formerly disconnected to establish relationships that have increased creativity, innovation, productivity, and efficiency. And because so many parents are afraid for their children’s safety (even though, for most children, they have never been safer) and don’t let them hang out with their friends in the real world, children use the Internet as a virtual meeting place.

Social networking sites are now where many children become acquainted before building real friendships off line and interact once friendships are established. Technology has also been a boon to maintaining already-established relationships. If your children have family or friends who live at a great distance, they no longer have to rely on the telephone or snail mail to stay connected. They can be in constant contact through email, texting, Facebook, Flickr, Skype, and Twitter. Tech-savvy grandparents love how technology has enabled them to stay more connected to their grandchildren who live far away.

As with all value-neutral advancements, there are both benefits and costs, positive uses and unhealthy misuses, intended outcomes and unintended consequences. My concern focuses on how children come to define relationships and the role that popular culture and technology is playing in that process. For example, I hear many young people talking about all of the “friends” they have made on the Web. There’s no doubt that the Web has enabled people everywhere to connect and communicate like never before, but I would argue that connection alone doth not a relationship make.

This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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