- Published on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 15:35
By Michelle Garcia Winner
They say the two things we can't avoid in life are death and taxes. Actually, there's a third thing – social skills. Throughout life we are surrounded by people. Those people have thoughts and emotions about those with whom they share space. For us all to feel safe and meet our immediate goals, we depend on other people to regulate their behavior in a manner that allows that to happen. In turn, we know we have to do the same.
Whether we are walking down a street, waiting in a doctor's office, or eating at a restaurant, our ability to do the things we need to do is dependent on those who are near us. We don't expect a stranger to walk up and hug us, the people waiting in the doctor's office to yell at us, or for diners in the restaurant to walk by our table and take the uneaten food off our plate as we leave our table. How is it that we all cooperate so well together? We use a hard-wired part of our brain called our social mind.
Without your active awareness, when you are in the company of others there's another social goal operating in the background: that people won't have weird or uncomfortable thoughts about you. We like people to have normal or even good thoughts about us. To achieve this goal we monitor what we're doing, what we're saying, the nonverbal messages we're sending with our eyes, our gestures, or our body language, and adjust as needed. We self-regulate our behaviors.
Inside our minds, however, we may not be as cool, calm, or collected as our bodies may suggest. Our minds may be filled with activity – not only about what's happening in the situation, but also with thoughts about how to behave so we don't stand out in a negative way. This process is the heart of what I describe as using your "Social Thinking and related social skills." Many people might call this being polite. But the behaviors associated with politeness are a subset of skills associated with a larger social concept that requires us to think about what other people expect from us and how they are thinking about us – which takes us right back to social thinking.
Maybe you never gave this idea much thought. For most of us, our everyday social thinking and social learning happens without a lot of serious contemplation. If you're still unsure about how this social driving force relates to you, then try this: next time you're in line at the grocery store, don't just stand there. You need to check out; it's your goal, so go for it. Totally disregard what others might think. If there are people in line in front of you, jump ahead of them. Push their groceries aside and unload your own. If you're really into this experiment, look at them all and announce, "I just hate waiting in line, so I get to go first!" Do your thing; it's all about you!
If even the thought of doing this makes you cringe, think about why you're having that reaction. Why not get your needs met before and above others? Notice all the thoughts and perhaps uncomfortable feelings just thinking about this situation induces. Notice that you do care about what others think and feel about you, and that you also have definite ideas of what people should/should not do in a situation like this. You hold expectations about what we call "social behavior" and you expect others to know about this too. People use self-control to help each other stay comfortable!
Our Social Mind
Our social thinking abilities are part of our social-emotional intelligence. This intelligence is neurologically based and is constantly evolving from birth.
Just as infants are born with the ability to learn to roll over, crawl and walk, they are also born with social neurology that encourages them to attend to people's faces – one of the earliest demonstrations of a developing social intelligence. By 12 months old children are able to follow the eyes of adults to figure out what they are looking at and know that tells them something about what they are thinking about. This emerging social understanding leads to them making guesses about what will happen next in their environment. For example, a one-year-old sits in a high chair and watches his mom open the refrigerator door. The baby gets excited knowing she is about to get fed.
The growth of the social mind is remarkable. This early investigation of faces segues into learning about the interrelationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior. By the end of the fourth year of life, if given the opportunity, most children will be able to share an imagination with their peers, cooperate, negotiate, problem solve, communicate, and even collaborate to engage in pretend play. Research (Lockhart, 2010; Bergen, 2002; Wolfberg, 2003) supports the importance of peer play in helping all children learn to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Peer play also helps students learn how to work as part of a group and take directions from their classroom teachers. As the social mind evolves, we are able to interpret motives, understand our own and others' emotions, develop empathy and deeper social relationships. It is our social thinking that also helps us succeed in school. We use our social thinking to interpret and respond to different parts of our academic curriculum, such as reading comprehension of literature, written expression, and organizational skills.
For decades, social emotional intelligence has received too little credit as a life skill. We often refer to it as a "soft skill" - running in the background and providing us with silent directions but not something to really take note of. Today, we realize it is so much more, and a realm of processing that may even be more important to our success in life than the "book learning" we prize so highly (Goleman, 2006).
Think about the act of conversing with others. Conversations provide a platform to share our stories and experiences. When we describe something that happened to us, people connect to us through their own thoughts and emotions. We also explore each other's point of view and find ways we can relate in spite of some of our differences. As we emotionally connect to others we feel better; not only about that person but about ourselves. We are emotional animals. People we call our friends are people who make us feel good about ourselves over time.
Our experiences relating, good and bad, help us learn to navigate through the more difficult moments of life and be better able to negotiate and solve problems in our work and home environments.
However, don't think the social experience is always lovely; it's not. Our social relationships can be challenging, mostly because as humans, we're difficult. People can be manipulative and self-serving. While most of us appear to be kind hearted and like to think about ourselves in that way, in fact most, if not all of us, are fairly ego-centric and somewhat paranoid. This social learning takes practice!
Here's an example. Let's say I have a good discussion with three other people. At the end of the discussion I only say goodbye to two people and the other person I ignore. What happens? I've probably made that person feel frustrated with me. She'll think I didn't like her or somehow she offended me. However, she is unlikely to tell me directly–and it's equally unlikely she'll stay silent. There's a good chance she'll go tell five of her friends about how I did her wrong. As a group they may all bitch about me. Research (McAndrew, 2008) shows we make friends the fastest by complaining to each other – which means the more we complain together, the better we emotionally connect. Weird but true!
We humans also seek social validation. We want people to include us. We want people to think we have something to offer others such as our intelligence, our art, our musical or scientific abilities. We also seek comfort. If someone makes us feel uncomfortable we reject them.
Our social brains never stop learning. Wherever you are in your own stage of life, you likely handle difficult people and situations better than you did 10 years ago. That is, if you've been exercising your social brain muscle and using it in social situations.
So here's an interesting fact: the social mind can be thrown off course by a lack of practice. Research (Greenfield, 2008; Small & Vorgan, 2008) is indicating that our brain neurology is physically changing in response to the increase in use of technology and the decrease in face-to-face interaction. Today's communication technology and social media are eliminating much of that person-to-person social contact where we get that all important practice. Isn't it time to ask: are we moving in the right direction?
Technology, Social Media and the Social Mind
Let me be clear here: social media does have its benefits and I'm not "anti" social media. It's an excellent tool for planning events – most high school kids now coordinate group parties or plans on Facebook very effectively. It is also very helpful for coordinating masses of people to vote, protest, or share a perspective. Information can be shared like wildfire. A good YouTube clip can be passed around all over the world quickly and efficiently.
Social media allows us to share photos with family and friends wherever they live and stay connected through the pictures of our lives. No need for the family picture album, and we can store our photos in the cloud so they're accessible at any moment, anywhere.
We have the ability to share our romantic history, current relationship status, education, religion, schooling, and employment – whether it's real or imagined. We can connect to people in our city, across the state, or in another country for business or pleasure.
Many people find the easy access to personal information on online dating attractive. It saves them time and effort during the dating process. If a person of interest is "in a relationship" you can turn your romantic energy elsewhere. If their status changes – boom! You are free to flirt actively and as aggressively as you want.
Social media also allows us to renew contact with long lost friends. It's also a window into learning about the very cool things people are doing. After all, most people don't spend their time posting about their bad days, humiliating moments, or the mistakes they've made. They post what they think is interesting, good stuff – so people think they're interesting, good people doing interesting, fun things!
Social media is a narcissist's dream come true. You can post a whole lot of information about yourself –pictures, stories, blogs, sound bites, and videos. You can post true stuff, real stuff, fabricated or fictitious information. You can post about what you did last week, last night, or in the last hour. It's all about you! And, you only need to spend a few seconds or minutes paying attention to what anyone else has posted. If you want a person to have a good thought about you, you simply click "like" on their post - whether you read it or not!
Facebook has created a community that values quantity over quality, where having many "friends" slyly suggests social success. In fact, it encourages us to publically count our friends for all to see –the more friends, the more social status we have. With social media, we learn a little about a lot of people rather than learning a lot about a selected few. And we can do that without ever meeting face to face.
If we are lucky enough to have a group of people to hang out with face to face, social media now makes it possible through our cell phones and IPADs to text, post, read and keep current with what all your other semi-friends are doing at any moment. Dr. Sherry Turkel, a psychologist at M.I.T. studying the impact of social media on our relationships, refers to people who hang out together while texting others as being "alone together." She sees social media filling a need to feel that we are always connected somewhere to someone even if the connection is lacking depth. She wonders if we are growing fearful of being alone – fearing solitude, fearing peace with one's self, that we are favoring mere connection over conversation.
Researchers are also noticing that we behave differently online than we do face to face. Psychologists call it "deindividuation." Dr. Daniel Martin describes: "We behave in a different way when online. It's as if you're wearing a cloak or a mask, and, well, you can get away with it." When you don't have to face a person you are bullying, it's difficult to feel any empathy for the person you're harassing. Martin adds, "When in a mask or uniform or group, you cease to recognize even yourself as an individual and therefore don't see others that way, either, don't see how you're hurting someone."
The written language we used in our social media poses its own problems too, namely the lack of communicative channels it offers. We no longer attend to tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, or other visible contextual clues. Nor do we attend to the speed in which each person responds. As Dr. Turkel explains, "FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters."
Face-to-face communication is heavily reliant on interpersonal-emotional communication being synergistic and dynamic. We read many social signals at once helping us more easily interpret sarcasm, honesty, deceit, competence or incompetence. All of these signals are much harder to read through brief postings alone. If we repeatedly remove the opportunities to practice these social skills, what happens then?
As younger and younger children establish social media accounts, their emotional immaturity puts relationships at great risk for misinterpretation. Children who are 9-13 years old lack the emotional maturity to manage this linear, brief communicative style. Their peer relations are critical and can be inflammatory at this age. Social media can make it that much harder. Kids don't realize their posts are permanent and can be read by many.
The pros and cons of social media will continue to be debated, but consumers are voting with their fingers and they are overwhelmingly accessing these methods for social connection. That said, they are also feeling the fall-out to their digital lives.
In a 2012 study, "Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives" by Common Sense Media (www.commonsense.org/research), researchers interviewed 1,030 teens 13-17 years old, attempting to produce a snapshot of how teens feel about the role of social media in their social and emotional lives. Some of the highlights include:
- 90% have used some form of social media
- 87% have exchanged text messages and 68% text on a daily basis
- 68% have a presence on Facebook and 51% visit a social networking site at least once a day
- 34% visit their social networking site several times a day and 23% of teens are "heavy" social media users, using at least two different types on a day-in day-out basis
- Most don't feel social media negatively impacts their emotional well-being
- Over 50% said social media helps foster friendships
- 4% said it has socially caused them damage.
Yet, when they interviewed the teens further:
- 49% said talking to each other in person is still their favorite way to communicate, adding it was more fun and it was easier to understand what people mean
- 33% choose to communicate via texting because they find it quicker, easier, and it gives them time to formulate their response
- Only 7% chose social networking (such as Facebook) as their "go- to" option to communicate with friends
- Only 4% chose phone conversation, and only 1% chose Twitter
- But, 41% said they were "addicted" to their cell phones
- 43% said they wished they could unplug once in a while
- 36% strongly or somewhat wish they could revert back to a time when Facebook didn't exist
The Next Generation: iPad Babies
The children we can't yet interview are the "iPad babies" – a general of children who will be immersed in technology starting at a very young age. These are children we have all seen, as young as nine months old, holding an expensive cell phone or iPad while being pushed in their strollers, sitting in high chairs in restaurants, sitting in a park with a caregiver. This is startling at many levels. As a specialist in the development of social learning and the social mind, I have strong concern about how this baby's social abilities will develop: his ability to learn to be with a group, exchange glances of social relatedness, partake in reciprocal circles of social exchange, seek out social cues to help him interpret the situation, learn to anticipate what may be happening next, etc.
The baby who is growing up amidst the high attraction, quick reinforcement of digital games and programs is also not learning to manage boredom – a critical skill not only for childhood but also adulthood. It's a reality of life that even the best jobs and the times spent with your best friend or family have their boring moments.
Here's an example that really made an impression on me related to a speaking engagement I had in Hawaii. I was walking through the hotel's outdoor pool area - which was quite fancy - and a family had rented a cabana. As I walked by, I noticed that all five of the family members were individually engaged on their own separate devices – the one-year-old, the two elementary school age siblings, and the parents. Here they were, in an expensive cabana, outdoors in Hawaii by a pool, and meters away from the beach. It was one of the saddest family moments I had witnessed. It would be better if they were all arguing because then at least they would have been trying to relate to each other!
With the advent of functional neurological imaging at the cellular level, scientists are learning how quickly the brain adapts to new information. If a baby is more interested in focusing on highly stimulating information delivered through a small screen rather than the more mundane but critical social information that surrounds her – does her basic social neurology stay the same? How will that baby cope with having to share space with others and directing his attention to something with less visual impact – like a teacher trying to lead a group of students through a lesson? Or other children sitting together in a sandbox playing with sand and toys? Are we creating an environment in which the social brain is being conditioned toward artificial connections rather than providing the landscape in which social-emotional feedback encourages emotional and relational development and person-to-person communication?
The question trail keeps growing. When these babies become toddlers will they stop playing with their devices to watch their peers – the precursor to learning to play together? Or will they find them too uninteresting, too unpredictable, and simply revert to their digital device? Will they have the patience to learn to share and cooperate when they have been provided with highly stimulating games every time they risked being bored?
While it is too early to take data on this, teachers are already telling us it is a growing problem. They report students enter preschool and kindergarten less able to work as part of a group, collaborate, and focus attention on information that lacks visual impact.
There is no doubt that students can be taught lessons from the curriculum using technology in a more individualized manner. However, for students who have grown up running multiple technology programs simultaneously on one computer, self-discipline can be a problem. Research (Rosen, 2011) indicates that students who use technology to learn, but stop to check their social media account at least once every 15 minutes, are likely to have lower grades than those who don't check their social media account.
Teachers are finding that all children are benefitting from classroom time that encourages the study of social emotional development. Social Thinking tools and strategies that are part of our larger Social Thinking teaching framework are being adopted into mainstream classrooms in schools in the U.S., even though they were initially created for bright folks with weak social learning abilities from birth.
The Social Thinking framework gives children a common vocabulary to talk about social issues and helps them better understand that social thinking and social skills affect all parts of their lives, across all years of life. Children are becoming "social detectives" to "think with their eyes" and make "smart guesses" about the context and what the "expected/unexpected" behaviors are in that situation. They talk about people having "good thoughts" and "weird thoughts." They learn to become better at self-monitoring and self-regulating their behavior based on how they think it may make another person think and feel.
Through Social Thinking curriculum materials, teachers find concrete ways to teach children strategies to help guide them through the boring moments and "do the social fake," to figure out the "group plan," keep their "bodies and brains in the group," and realize when they're being a "just me" rather than a "thinking about you kid." These kids are enjoying the experience of exploring the ways we all get along. They are using this information to help them develop perspective taking, conflict resolution skills, to analyze characters' personalities, motives and intentions in books, as well as figure out how to write a better paragraph by thinking about how the reader will think and feel about it.
The Value of Social Relationships
Helping children make emotionally intelligent choices requires a lifetime of learning coupled with adult guidance that instills value in experiencing life through our face-to-face rather than mostly screen-to-screen, emotional relationships. Put away the devices at the pool or beach; swim, splash, play a game together instead. When you go to dinner, talk! The topic is less important than the experience. By sharing events we can compare and contrast our thoughts and feelings. This helps us learn about each other's perspective as well as forge memories of togetherness which make us feel connected to each other and the world. This can encourage expanded perspectives and a healthier mental attitude in general.
Social media has its place. But I encourage us to be thoughtful so we, as teachers and parents, can better guide our students' and children's learning. It's a matter of finding balance between valuing and encouraging our children's access to scientific information and making sure we provide them with steady access to non-virtual social relationships that are deep, thoughtful, messy, unpredictable, fraught with challenges, and filled with emotional connection.
Interestingly, it's not just we "older folks" who are noticing this. My 24-year-old daughter has a group of friends. They text regularly, update their pictures on Facebook – they rarely talk on the phone. Their phone is a camera, a map, and a texting tool, the phone part only used in case of emergency. As much as they each like to connect to their many other "friends" digitally, they feel offended when the group is together and one of them choses to text another rather than talk to the person actually in front of them! They don't like the idea of being alone together. These young professional women have now made up new rules for their weekly girls' night out: their devices need to be turned off and put away.
When all is said and done, the memories we cherish most are not about posting, texting, or tweeting, but from the face-to-face moments we share together in real time.
Listen to Michelle talk more about social media and its potential effects on social learning on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3sXl8f4jf0
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Common Sense Media. (2012). Social media, social life: How teens view their digital lives. Retrieved from www.commonsensemedia/research.
Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.
Greenfield, S. (2008). ID: The quest for identity in the 21st century. London: Sceptre.
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Rosen, L.D. (2011). Poke me: How social networks can both help and harm our kids. Plenary address, American Psychological Association National Convention, Washington, DC.
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