By Julie Elbert, LISW
Question: Social media has left me feeling disconnected from my kids. I do not know how to talk their language anymore. I want to talk to them about school, their friends, and life in general. It seems all they want to talk about is their 112-day Snapstreak. I don’t know what this means and I don’t get why it is important to them. Is this normal? – Kristie M.
Response: First off-you are not alone! Let me start by trying to explain this new definition of “streaking.”
Snapchat is a form of social media where you send short videos or pictures to people you have deemed are your “friends.” A Snapstreak is achieved when two people send snaps (pictures with captions on them) back and forth for a consecutive number of days. The trick is that you have to respond to each other within 24 hours or the streak is broken and the record goes away.
For teenagers and young adults, it can become so important to them that they line up “streak sitters” to keep their streaks going for them when they have to be away from their phones. When a streak is broken, it can be very frustrating, as some seem to get self-esteem from having these streaks go on for very long periods of times. We as parents are often left asking ourselves: How can this be so important to you? Are you kidding me!
There are two sides to this situation. First, sometimes what we as parents want to connect with our children on and what they see as interesting or important, are two very different things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that theirs are “wrong.” Sometimes we have to find ways to connect with them and their interests versus being critical of their lifestyle.
One of the best ways to get your adolescent to talk to you is in the car. Ask them to put their phone away for the short drive to where you are going, let them pick the radio station (not too loud), and almost always you will find you learn something about what’s happening in school or with one of their friends that you didn’t.
The other side to this is that we do need to be aware how our society and kids have become somewhat obsessed with technology. It may be the “norm” because it is common, but you do not have to accept that this is the new normal for your family.
Good old-fashion communication is so important for individuals to feel understood. It is also necessary to solve problems and resolve conflict. In families, it is essential to keep relationships functional and express care and love for one another. However, as communication methods evolve, some for the better and some not, it is up to us to embrace that which is helpful and weed out what is not.
A trend that does appear problematic is the perception our children have about the definition of communication. If you ask older adults, myself included, you might hear descriptions that involve people sitting down in the same room, looking at each other, and talking over a cup of coffee.
If you ask younger people how they communicate with one another, they will say they send text messages, snaps or tweets. Talking face-to-face is getting less important. Watching facial expressions throughout a conversation was a way to interpret the difference between sarcasm and genuineness, while today, facial expressions have been replaced with emojis.
It is up to families to require actual face time with each other. Not face time on a smart phone but face time at the dinner table. Speaking in full sentences, listening without interrupting, and maintaining eye contact for appropriate lengths of time is essential to teach children social skills and human skills. We all need to have the comfort of a hug, the kindness of a human on the other end of the phone, and the personal touch of another human being who notices we are in need of help.
Snapstreaks are evidence of ongoing communication between two people over the course of days, weeks and even months. It is important to remember that the length of time is what makes it significant, not the content. It is more of a contest than a gesture of compassion.
That, in and of itself, does not make it bad, however. It just means that snaps are not the same as hugs and letters and telling your friends and family that you care about them. Balance is important.
In engaging with your child, one last suggestion would be to ask them to teach you how to Snapchat and then communicate your message to your child through this program. It can be a great way to stay connected. Have fun with it. But please, Snapchat responsibly.
This response was written by Julie Elbert, LISW, clinical director at Catholic Charities. Please send any questions, big or small, to firstname.lastname@example.org.