Since moving, my teen son spends more time with screens – not making friends

Teen boy with laptop and earphonesby Michael Rich, MD

Q: Our family moved recently from the U.S. to Mexico for my husband’s job, and while most things have been transitioning smoothly, I am concerned that my 14-year-old son is spending too much time with screens and not enough time making friends. Since moving, he spends a lot of time Skyping or playing video games with his friends back in the States. Last week, I even found out that he is using YouNow to stay connected with friends all the time…even when he is sleeping! I know this move has been tough, and I want to support his transition, but I’m concerned that if he continues to spend all of his time online with his old friends, his social life here will be non-existent. Any help you can offer me will be appreciated—thanks!

~ Figuring out friends, Mexico

A: Dear Figuring,

It is normal for your son to be struggling with the move and for him to want to stay connected to his friends back in the U.S. Moving to a new community can be an especially difficult transition for teenagers, who are figuring out who they are as individuals (separate from their parents) and rely heavily on peer relationships in that process. Today’s technology can help your son stay connected with those important people who are far away, and used mindfully, it can be helpful in his transition.

That said, if your son actually stays connected nearly 24/7 using YouNow, Skype, and video games with his old friends, he may end up spending much of his time trying to copy his former life instead of living his current one. As wonderful as these technologies can be for relaying images and sounds of people and places we love, they are still only images and sounds—they can never be as interesting, engaging, challenging, and sustaining as face-to-face interactions. But they do feel safe, and they often require less energy and vulnerability than going out and making new friends.

I would recommend talking openly and non-judgmentally with your son about your concerns. Ask him what the transition has been like for him and how he’s feeling. Let him know that you understand why he wants to stay connected with his friends in the States. Still, remind him that, while he may be spending a lot of his time connecting with his friends online, they are not. His friends in the States are also playing sports, hanging out, and engaging in a lot of activities together in real life.

Then help him think of ways to reach out and establish new relationships. You can model that process for him as well: Showing him what you do to engage with your new community may be a more effective form of communication than talking to him. Include him in activities where he might interact with his peers as you interact with yours. Discuss his connections with his old friends with acknowledgement and respect for his ability to be a good friend. Rather than denying him those interactions, use them as an example of how well he establishes relationships. Create opportunities for him to do so again by re-incorporating “live” activities in his life. Help him prioritize a healthier and more diverse menu of experience, which includes staying connected with his old friends as well as time with his family and chances to seek out new social relationships.

Finally, open up to your son about your own difficulties with the transition to Mexico and with moving away from friends. Acknowledging these vulnerabilities may help him to lower his defenses and examine his own struggles. Through your own choices, show him how to treat this shift (difficult as it is) as an opportunity to have new experiences, find new interests, and even to re-invent himself—and acknowledge that such changes are always hard, and that they happen throughout life. Also, honor his friendships and show your respect for his ability to connect with people, reminding him that he built the relationships he currently has from the ground up. Creating new relationships will take similar real-life effort on his part, but will ultimately become more enjoyable and sustaining than the images and sounds of his past.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is the Founder and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) as well as a pediatrician, researcher, father, and media aficionado. Read more about Michael here.