By Erin Porteous, CEO

We all know the old saying, ‘kids these days’ whether we heard our grandparents say it, our parents or maybe just someone passing by. Typically the phrase was coupled with a shoulder shrug, possibly a nod to a misunderstanding in an interaction and usually it was said under the premise that kids now are different from the generation before.

While there have been significant changes through the rise and raising of each generation, the current generation (dotingly named the iGeneration) is facing a whole new world to navigate, and it comes through a screen. 

One of the elements that impacts, persuades and infiltrates this era more than any preceding group of children raised in America, is the influence of the internet. Accessible through a variety of devices, kids now have an insurmountable amount of data they can reach, read and react to with just a couple swipes of a finger. And buried in the vast, never-ending world of technology is the important channel of communication, and how kids today use more than 100 different platforms to create and validate their digital identity. For many, these platforms are used for positive development; yet for others, these outlets become a way to cast votes, judgement and dislikes without ever having to face the response of the person on the other end.

It is critical to examine the potentially detrimental impact technology can have on this generation’s social and emotional well-being – especially when a child does not have the tools needed to navigate these digital challenges. As a parent and the leader of an organization committed to nurturing the well-being of children, I know developing a healthy sense of empathy is essential to a child’s growth. It fosters their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and to learn to see the world from another person’s perspective. Empathy is the gateway to kindness.

(Quick pause: people often confuse empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is “feeling for” and empathy is “feeling with.” Sympathy: I’m sorry that you’re in pain. Empathy: I feel your pain.)

Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore refers to some instances of kids being deliberately cruel as empathy blind spots: “when children decide that certain people’s feelings don’t ‘count’ and therefore feel justified in being mean to them.”

From my perspective, nothing creates more pronounced empathy blind spots than social media. Kids and adults alike may use social media as a mechanism for aggressive, mean-spirited behavior. These platforms allow us to say anything to or about someone else without experiencing their reaction in person, in the moment. It enables us to speak freely while avoiding accountability, and in so doing, we fail to build empathy. Prior to this generation, if a child was mean to another child, both children were partaking in an interaction that most likely took place face-to-face.  In response to the name-calling, riddles, or squawks, one could see the physical response and emotions in the targeted child – being upset, in pain, or retreating from the situation. These days, kids can unfriend, unlike, and cast a barrage of negative emojis at anyone without dealing with the hurt they may be causing.

The other aspect of social media that makes growing up today vastly different than coming of age in 20th century is that it has dramatically changed the scope of cruelty, harassment and bullying. When I was a kid, if others at school picked on me, the hassling ended with the last school bell of the day. Afterschool activities and my home life were safe zones. I didn’t have to guard myself against more teasing until the short walk to the school bus the next morning.

Through social media, kids can be trolled 24/7. Being picked on during recess, at lunch or on the bus on doesn’t stop when the school day ends. There’s no escaping the wrath of social media harassment, no physical separation from that negative behavior.

Simply staying offline is not an effective countermeasure to cyber-aggression. The pressure for kids to be active on social media, to garner likes and positive comments on their posts, and to engage with their peers’ social channels, can be overwhelming. A fifth grader recently told me that in order to sit at the most popular girl’s lunch table at school, she has to “like” the popular girl’s Instagram posts. No like = no seat at the table. While the daily decision of where to sit and who to sit with at lunchtime has been fraught with peril for lots of kids since the dawn of school lunchrooms, social media has taken the social hierarchy at school to a whole new level of intensity. Add to this the inability to escape negative or unwanted attention, and no wonder kids are more stressed out today than kids who lived at the height of the Great Depression.

The prevalence of social media in our culture – especially the 24/7 factor – makes it ever more important that we create a feeling of safety and acceptance for children in their homes, schools and at their Boys & Girls Club. They need to know that even if they are the target of cruelty online, they are loved and valued in the real world. The challenge of doing this for 10,000 kids across Metro Denver who belong to our Boys & Girls Clubs is that many of them come from unstable homes, where poverty and food insecurity are commonplace, and they are all too often exposed to violence and the fallout from drug and alcohol addiction.

The very foundation of the Boys & Girls Club mission is to provide a safe, stimulating, supportive place for kids to go after school. The vibrant environment we create for our Club kids allows them to take a break from “screen time.” It’s about playing, learning and growing in the real world, not zoning out on devices. Even the computer programs in our Club technology labs encourage kids to work together and interact with one another. By prioritizing relationship-building at our Clubs, kids learn to build and value friendships, and navigate conflict with each other in a healthy, productive way.

I have no idea what form social media will take when my one year-old daughter comes of age. Heaven knows what kind of technology will dominate our culture by then. (Will we have chips implanted in our heads so we can communicate with each other telepathically and download texts, emails and videos directly into our brains? Will we be debating if we should “chip” our kids, and what age is “chip appropriate”?) My educated guess is helping our kids develop their sense of empathy will be more important than ever. School lunchrooms will still be fraught with social pressure for centuries to come, but if I can instill in my daughter the value of following the “digital golden rule” – don’t say anything in cyberspace that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face – then she will more likely be a thoughtful, kind person…chip or no chip.