Virtual communication seduces us, offering a myriad of momentary pleasures as the immediacy of response provides instant gratification. A dopamine rush. Our opportunity for contact in the online world begins to be seen as a triumph over the constraints of face-to-face interaction. Mainstream culture increasingly questions the cost of spending more time, more thought, and more emotional energy on flesh-and-blood intimacy: “It’s just not worth it!”

This is a fallacy. An illusion of convenience, efficiency, and fluidity.

Online, one often feels pressed for time, obligated by social codes that equate a lack of instant response with rudeness. These codes ironically invite the unpleasant consequences of speaking before you think, as minor mistakes and unfortunate word choice create friction and hurt feelings. Children who grow up in this social context are well positioned for social confusion. If they didn’t feel so pressed for time, they might take a moment to think about the messages they are sending and receiving. Without so much pressure to respond immediately, kids might take a short break from a difficult conversation to get support from those they trust, including their parents.

Our knowledge of reality comes from the world that surrounds us, and parents can provide their children with perspective to counter problematic perceptions of healthy social conduct gathered from online interaction.

If you think it may help your kid to enjoy healthier social interactions, have a conversation with them! Flying interminably through online and offline worlds with unparalleled ease, we may feel that the Digital Age has given us the gift of fluidity. In reality, the sense of time pressure created by this “efficient”, “convenient” online system provides fluidity only in sustained carelessness. The continuous state of distraction created by the system may deprive kids of the ability to be fully present with each other, affecting their power to build and sustain close friendships: to give one another attention, gain confidence in their bond, achieve mutual understanding, experience commiseration, feel a deep sense of connection. Along with the benefits of virtual communication come real challenges to personal relationships – a persistent sense of urgency can cause serious damage. Talk to your kids about these challenges in whatever words feel right. Invite them to share their experiences and listen to what they have to say. Empathize with them. Use the 5 Steps of Emotion Coaching!

Encourage your children to take breaks from social media, to find ways to overcome the challenges presented by the Net both online and offline. Support prosocial behaviors and encourage them to use online communication to initiate offline interactions.

Encourage them to sometimes think of the internet as we thought of the telephone, as a tool to have a conversation arranging a face-to-face meeting. To gather in person, spend time outside playing games, enjoy sporting activities, create or build something together, study, connect, and get to know the real human being beneath his or her online persona.

But we’d like to make something clear: we are not declaring war on technology. We recognize the many benefits of Digital Age methods of communication, particularly for staying connected. It is easier than ever for our children to carry on conversations with their friends, even if they are miles apart. They are able to share their experiences with each other through photos and videos on their smart phones. Kids can send each other articles, news stories, and buzzfeed lists that they find funny or interesting. They can support each other in school by sharing resources they find online. They can send text messages and tweets to each other, letting their friends know they are thinking of them and showing that they care (in 140 characters or less!). Digital Age communication presents a medium for a different form of intimacy, not necessarily non-intimacy.

As parents, we must help our kids to find the balance between the offline and online. Even if we follow the 5 steps of emotion coaching with our children, we will not always be present to recognize expressions of emotion and help to label them with words. Thus, we must empower our children to manage difficult Digital Age problems independently. Later this week, we will share some strategies for doing just that.

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: A Sense Of Urgency
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.