Sitting at a meal with friends, it’s hard not to notice the cell phone adjacent to each of our dinner plates. For every personal verbal exchange it seems there is an almost equal number of impersonal texts impolitely answered at the dinner table. Today our technology, rather than our intonation and subtle nonverbal cues, seems to serve as the primary source of communication with relatives, friends and foes alike.
While our instinct to make instant faceless transactions grows (regarding anything from our mood and clothing to a simple impulsive thought), our opportunity to read facial expressions and subtle social cues dwindles. For adults living in this era, the transition to technology has not interfered with the ability to read social cues—at least as far as we know. For children, however, who are tech-savvy at the age of 3 or 4, there are potential gaps in acquiring basic interpersonal social skills. Indeed, the anonymity that the Internet provides can lead to the numbing of empathy and destructive cyber-bullying.
Many public schools have identified the need for social skills training among young people, but, surprisingly, have limited enrollment in social skills groups. How could this be? Wouldn’t parents jump at the chance for the extra attention and skill building for their child, especially when face to face social opportunities seem to be decreasing? After all, social skills are a crucial part of social emotional development; they take time to develop and can be protective. Given that parents often reach out to me as both a friend and clinician, seeking reassurance about the normalcy of their child’s social interactions, I find it puzzling that social skills groups are not a priority.
1. Since social skills can be acquired through small group instruction, take advantage of these programs where they exist. If your school district doesn’t offer one, suggest that they start one.
2. Consider that a social skills group is a unique opportunity to build upon and enhance an existing yet underdeveloped repertoire of skills.
3. Consider how greater familiarity and practice in appropriate social interaction can be protective against bullying. The more practice, the greater the repertoire of skills for entering a variety of social settings.
4. Consider the social emotional strengths of children and how a skills group could enhance their ability to express themselves, their creativity and individuality. If we nurture the appropriate self-expression, we instill pride and self-confidence in them while helping to enrich our society.
Social skills are necessary. They allow us to enlist support and prevent the social isolation that often triggers depression. Our focus on technology requires that we turn our attention to enhancing appropriate social interaction through greater social training opportunities, especially in our public school system where the most children can be reached.
Alison Gilbert, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a clinical assistant professor at Hofstra University School of Medicine.