Teaching kids how to make friends in a digital world

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

When your child tells you they haven't got any friends it can be heartbreaking, but sometimes it can simply be a matter of teaching them how to socialise both online and offline.

Not all pre-teens and teens find it easy to make and sustain friendships in real life and when most of their peers are hanging out in the digital space it can often be harder to make meaningful connections.

Digital parenting expert Martine Oglethorpe said making friends could be difficult, particularly if they don't have access to technology.

"It can be difficult when so much of their social lives, events and invites occur online so there can certainly be an element of feeling 'left out' if a particular child is not allowed on social networks," Ms Oglethorpe said.

"However, if we are exposing our kids to enough chances to meet people, via school connections, extra curricula and community activities, then there's usually plenty of options to make and maintain friends, outside of the online space."

But if you're a child who struggles to connect to people in real life, sometimes navigating the online world is just as tricky. 

"For all young people the focus of adolescence is often on a need to feel connected, a need to conform and be accepted and a fear of exclusion," she said.

"All of this happens at a time when they're beginning to ask questions of themselves, as they explore their identity and they're making their own judgements about their self worth. 

"When it comes to the digital world, many of the already existing issues of friendship are exaggerated."

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Feelings of isolation are amplified when they're not included in group chats and exclusion is felt more intensely when faced with a digital snapshot of their peers' lives on Instagram and Snapchat.

"Sitting at home and scrolling a social media feed to see everyone else enjoying a party or gathering they were not invited to, can be a constant and confronting reminder," she said.

If you're already struggling to make and sustain friendships, it can be even harder to develop an understanding of the way people communicate online. And even for those kids who are capable communicators, lines can be crossed and miscommunication can occur.

"There is also an increased chance of people saying things online they wouldn't usually say in real life," she said.

"When not faced with people's immediate reactions or facial expressions, there can be a tendency to be less careful about the effect of our words on others. 

"Without tone of voice, body language or any non verbal cues, we can easily have messages misinterpreted and many times this results in unnecessary dramas that can be problematic for friendships."

Encouraging kids to also seek out friendships outside of their school and the online world helps them take a break from their immediate environment.

"Trying to get them to focus on other people and pursuits can help them take the focus away from everything that is happening online or with their friendship groups," she said.

"Spending time on their passions, on other people, on community and on other endeavours, allows them to naturally form a wider range of friendship groups and gives them 'back up' for those times when they're finding it difficult to cope with their immediate friendship circles." 

According to the Federal Government's free online parenting resource Raising Children it can be hard for some pre-teens and teens to make friends. Here are some tips they suggest to help:

  • Think about your child's interests and strengths and encourage your child to join a club, sports team or social club. This will introduce them to new people with similar interests and help build confidence.
     
  • Spend time with extended family and friends to strengthen the bonds with people they already know and love.
     
  • Encourage your child to invite friends over to participate in a shared activity like going to the park, baking, watching a movie or having a sleepover.
     
  • Ensure your child feels comfortable to have friends over and give them space to hang out without parental interruptions.
     
  • When your child is older support them to get a part-time job or engage in a volunteering, which will again expand their friendship networks.
     
  • Seek out the reasons why your child might be struggling and perhaps ask a professional for advice.
     
  • Praise and encourage your child to build up their self-esteem.