- What do you do if your friend is mad at you but won’t tell you why?
- What do you do if people are spreading rumors about you and no one believes that they aren’t true?
- What do you do when friends pressure you to do stuff you don’t want to do, but you’re afraid not to because they’ll make fun of you?
Sound familiar? These might be the same issues we once dealt with, but our children aren’t responding to them the way we did before social media. When 21st-century kids experience peer conflicts, online and off, they typically respond with a level of social aggression (aka verbal violence) that damages individuals in profound ways and pollutes school climates everywhere.
In September I spoke with nearly a thousand students at a couple of international schools, one in Singapore and another in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We talked about Real Friends vs. the Other Kind, based on my Middle School Confidential series. In each presentation the kids and I discussed tough issues like: stress, peer approval addiction, and the brain’s occasional habit of working against our desire to do the right thing. Even though I was 7,000 miles from home, the comments and questions coming from these students expressed the same conflicts and emotional confusion I’ve heard repeatedly from kids in San Jose, St. Louis, and Philly.
Back in the last century, when we had a problem with someone at school, we went home for dinner with the family, did homework, and watched TV. Sometimes we even read a book to take our minds off school and social garbage. The next morning in class combatants were usually less combative and we were all better able to concentrate on whatever we were expected to learn.
Today’s kids are mind-melded with peers 24/7. School and home are equally conducive for frantic texting and getting more people involved in the drama du jour. Status anxiety regularly submerges so much mental real estate, our students are often flooded with destructive emotions. They can’t think clearly when they’re upset. No one can. Which is why the adults who live and work with kids need to actively teach kids to be good people, otherwise, their moral compasses will be calibrated solely by their equally clueless peers. (Not a pretty thought!)