Lockdown has been tough on teens. Many of them have missed out on normal rites of passage, like parties, school formals, concerts, and sporting matches. They’ve missed hanging out with friends, and just being around other people.
Technology has helped people to stay in touch – but how can we use it better, to deepen friendships and ease the loneliness many teens are feeling?
Make time with friends more enjoyable
While most teens can connect with their friends online, it isn’t always easy. They might feel awkward, or miss the physical company, or struggle to find things to talk about during lockdown.
Try doing fun activities together online. Many teens enjoy gaming with friends, but there are also things they can do via videoconferencing or other tech, such as artwork, craft, cooking, building models, playing music, online board games, doing makeup, or just watching a TV show together and commenting on how good (or bad!) it is.
Connect with supervised groups
For teens who are feeling lonely, it’s tempting to make ‘friends’ with strangers online, but this is risky. Parents can help by suggesting supervised online activities. A good place to start is your local council youth service or local library, who run things for teens like online art or photography classes, gaming sessions, trivia nights, exercise classes, or ‘social listening’ groups where teens listen to their favourite music together. Before joining, check that these groups are private and moderated.
For teens who just want to talk with other young people, some organisations run online group chats and peer support circles – for example, Kids Helpline, headspace and ReachOut. These forums are led by mental health professionals, and they focus on a range of topics, such as friendships, gaming, and coping with stress.
Talk with your teens about how they will protect their privacy during these sessions – for example, being careful which names or profile pics they use, telling the moderator if anything makes them uncomfortable, and not posting information that might identify where they live or go to school. And check you’re comfortable with the age range of people taking part, as some groups include young adults too.
Keep things kind and sensible
When we’re with other people face-to-face, we communicate a lot through our tone of voice and body language, and we’re aware of how our surroundings shape the way we behave. Two teens talking in a noisy playground, for example, might have a very different conversation to what they would have in the car with Mum listening in!
But when we’re online, we don’t have that context, so it’s easy to get the wrong idea. We can feel very upset if a friend doesn’t answer a message, doesn’t like our posts, or makes a snarky comment.
As parents, we can encourage our teens to ask themselves:
- “Is there someone out there who would like to hear from me?” There might be someone in their social group who’s being left out of things, or someone in their class who doesn’t have many friends, who would really appreciate a nice message right now. It could even be the start of a new friendship.
- “How is my behaviour making other people feel?” Encourage teens to get into the habit of asking themselves how their messages or posts might affect others. If they’ve upset someone, encourage them to take the material down and apologise to that person.
- “Should I give this person the benefit of the doubt?” While there’s no excuse for bullying, it’s also true that we all say silly things without thinking sometimes. If you think there’s been an honest misunderstanding, encourage your teen to speak to the person one-to-one via phone or videoconferencing, or talk the problem through with someone they trust, or take a break from tech until they feel calmer.
- “What’s the smart way to respond if a friend doesn’t answer my messages?” Encourage your teens not to take it personally if a friend doesn’t message them back. There might be plenty of innocent reasons for this. Remind your teens not to bombard people with messages, or send hostile messages like “You obviously hate me…” It’s better to wait a while, then message the other person with something specific, like “Have you done that maths project yet?”, or something fun, like “Did you see the footy yesterday?”, or something direct but polite, like “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a while – is everything OK?” If it turns out there is a problem, try talking directly over phone or videoconferencing. But if the other person makes it clear they don’t want to message again, it’s important to respect that, back off, and focus on your other friendships.
Meanwhile, keep reminding your teens about the importance of staying safe online. Check out the eSafety Commissioner’s advice about online safety during COVID-19.
And remember, if your teens need to speak with someone, there are free support lines out there, including Dolly’s Dream Support Line on 0488 881 033, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, and eheadspace 1800 650 890.