Coping with rejection by Instant Messaging

Surf in Style by davdibiaseFor years, children have been told, "Don't talk to strangers." That message might be especially true today, when the Internet gives us easy access to millions of people we've never met. Although Internet safety skills are essential for kids to learn, at least one researcher believes that online chatting with a stranger can help teens and young adults cope with social stress. In an article published in the current issue of Developmental Psychology (and discussed in this week's episode of The Family Anatomy Podcast), Elisheva Gross put young adolescents and young adults in a situation designed to make them feel either socially included or excluded. The activity (a ball game) worked - both adolescents (who averaged around 12.5 years old) and young adults (who were over 18) were distressed when they were left out of the game. After playing, participants were randomly chosen to either play a solitary computer game (Tetris) or to enter an Instant Messaging chat with a member of the opposite sex.

Even though they didn't know the person with whom they were chatting, both the adolescents and the young adults who were rejected felt more appreciated and valued than the Tetris players. Their self-esteem also recovered more quickly. Better yet, the younger group showed improvements in mood and anger, along with a reduction in shame following the brief IM session. Gross surmised that the weaker typing skills of the adolescents might have forced them to "keep it simple," which might have been just enough to create a social connection. I'd add that the weaker typing skills of the younger group might have made typing more distracting - forcing them to focus more on their communication and less on the prior rejection. In addition, an online chat with a stranger of the opposite gender might have been a more novel experience for the adolescents than for the young adults, possibly increasing their feelings of connection.

In an era where parents and school staff are on alert for dangerous interactions on the 'net, and increasing screen time may be contributing to obesity among youth, these preliminary findings suggest that eliminating access to Instant Messaging might also remove a potential tool for coping with rejection. Further research is clearly needed to determine if the benefits of online social interactions apply to the general population, and to find out how long the positive effects last. Only then will it be possible to determine the best balance between protection and communication.

Dr. Giuseppe and I discussed Internet safety issues on Episode 37 of the Family Anatomy podcast, and Dr. David Dutwin discussed social networks and screen time in our interview in Episodes 51 and 52. His book, Unplug Your Kids: A Parent's Guide to Raising Happy, Active and Well-Adjusted Children in the Digital Age, presents a balanced review of the available research on screen time and internet use.

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You can read the Developmental Psychology article here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.