Friday, January 15, 2021

Juvenile Social Isolation In The Age Of Covid

             Nowadays, there is a lot of concern expressed regarding the education of our children during Covid.  There is, of course, concern expressed regarding the potential dangers for these children having in-person classes.  So far, for kindergarten through 12th grade, there have been no major outbreaks of the illness among children physically attending school.  A different kind of concern has been repeatedly discussed regarding those children getting all or the bulk of their education online.  Such children experience social isolation as a result of not being able to physically mingle to some degree with their classmates in the external world.  Such children supposedly do not have the opportunity to develop the social skills necessary to becoming a fully functional human being.  My own feeling is that there is a legitimate reason to be worried, although, given the nature of Covid and how it can attack the teachers as well as students, it is certainly understandable that many school districts have implemented online learning.

            A larger question is why are so many people focused on the issue of social isolation only since Covid.  Covid has made things worse, but Covid definitely did not start the trend toward social isolation among young people.  If parents and educators are concerned about the loss of social skills among children, they can look to the growing non-educational use of computers and video games.  Over and over again, one hears stories about children who don’t want to go out to play after school with their friends, because they are so transfixed with their video games and with their social media.  As was pointed out in a previous article there are cases of kids who wear diapers so they wouldn’t have to interrupt a video game contest or tournament by going to the bathroom.  These are children for whom screen reality replaced external world reality as the dominant form of experience long before Covid came on the scene.  Perhap, Covid, by forcing adults to pay attention to an area of children’s experience for which they are directly responsible, has also forced adults to come to grips with what the increasing dominance of screen reality is doing to these children’s lives.

            The classic scene that gets conjured up in my mind is that of a group of pre-teen children sitting together in pre-Covid days, each one of which is texting a child who is somewhere else and not a part of the group.  It was so hard for these kids to connect through primary experience in external world reality with another kid who was sitting next to them.  Because of all the time that kids spend on their devices, they lose the capacity to connect with others in the external world, and to absorb such more intimate encounters.  As time goes on, more and more of these now grownup kids have trouble holding their marriages and their relationships with their significant others together.  The more time that people spend in screen reality, the more difficulty they will have bonding in close relationships.

            Now from what I will call the transition generations (people who first embraced modern technology well into late adolescence or young adulthood), the effects of this technology are definitely present, but more subtle.  We don’t know for sure what will happen to the kids who were first exposed to modern consumer technology as young children, but we can safely predict that it will lead to more and more lonely people who are incapable of properly absorbing what they so desperately need and want.

            Covid is temporarily at least making things worse if only because people aren’t so much being gently seduced into social distancing as they are being compelled to socially distance by, among other things, stay-at-home orders and lockdowns.  And when people do gather together at large parties, weddings, or religious services they are shamed and rebuked by the larger society.  So Covid is reinforcing the intentions of technology companies that want to make their devices and their software the main conduits of human communication.

            On the other hand, the fact that Covid is highlighting the situation of excessive immersion by young people in screen reality, and the resulting social isolation may have some long-term beneficial effects.  It will force teachers, educators, social workers and, most important of all, parents to come to grips with what is happening to the young people in their charge.  Hopefully, the adults in the lives of these young people will start focusing on ways to diminish the influence and control of this increasingly persuasive addiction.  In particular, maybe parents will start to realize that spending quality time with their children does not mean sitting next to them while they watch one television program after the next.  With Covid still around, parents can read to younger kids and play games and do crafts with children of all ages.  This will go a long way to alleviate social isolation at a time when it may be a little problematic for children from different households to play together.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

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