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Experts See Growing Trend: Socially Challenged Boys

Spending too much time online can mean missing out on necessary social interactions.

Social media, video games and texting have given kids other ways to connect with friends. Yet those same tools also can keep kids, particularly boys, from interacting socially with others, according to some local experts.

With the use of social media so prevalent, there is a growing trend among boys having problems learning the social and communication skills that are needed to build friendships and interact appropriately with other people.

“Girls are more emotional and will say someone doesn’t like me,” said Debra Catanese, a licensed clinical social worker at Naperville Clinical Services. “While boys tend to keep it in.

"They are supposed to be strong and not let their feelings out. They are still having issues with their peer groups … and feel left out.”

Many boys don’t know how to go up to someone and make new friends, she said. 

“Getting into junior high and saying, 'Do you want to be my friend' doesn’t work any longer,” Catanese said.

Part of the problem is that boys may be playing video games, like X-box Live or interacting on the Internet, but they are not having face-to-face interaction, she said. Without the physical interaction they are unable to learn how to read people’s social cues. As a result, boys are having a harder time understanding facial expressions and body language.

“Boys can do silly things that they think are funny,” Catanese said. “If nobody is giving them a look and they don’t have someone saying, ‘What did you do that for?’ they don’t understand.”

Catanese recently offered a weekly group program specifically geared to boys to help them learn to interact with one another. She said that tends to be more interest in offering programs for girls, and boys often are overlooked.

Social media can be a useful tool for those children who may feel shy, because it allows them to build connections and make friends with whom that they can get together and do things.

At the other end of the spectrum are those boys who turn to online communication more and more and spend less time interacting with others, said Dr. Fatima Ali, director of the outpatient program and eating disorder program at .

Spending so much time on the Internet can lead to isolation. For boys 11 to 14, they may not be gaining the confidence they need to learn how to interact comfortably with others, both Ali and Catanese said.

“The issue that comes up is really that connectedness,” Ali said “They are so absorbed in the Internet and so many social networks that for them to make the physical effort to really hang out with people is too hard for them to do. That is who we are talking about.”

Ali likened the overuse of the Internet to the introduction of television. Some kids would watch in moderation while others couldn’t be pulled away from the TV.

Ali said she hears from parents who are concerned that a child may be spending so much time on the Internet that they have stopped being physically active, have started to do poorly in school and are not spending time with friends. These parents worry because they don’t know whom their child may be interacting with online.

When we interact with people we are getting something out of it, such as friendship or the enjoyment of hanging out. If a person isn’t getting something positive in return they may start to think, “People don’t like me,” Catanese said. They can be more depressed.

A boy may have friends on Facebook but they are not physically interacting with them, not hanging out, watching a movie or doing things, Ali said. A child may end up feeling depressed, anxious and more socially isolated.

There is the risk of trying to create a network of friends, say with Facebook, only to have some people reject the request, she said.

“Somebody sends a friend request and the person does not accept it and it is seen as a personal rejection,” Ali said. “Say they send the request to two or three people who don’t accept. It feels like they don’t have any friends.”

The bigger implications are that in the future, when they are older, the boys will not have the tools to interact appropriately with others, which not only hinders personal relationships but also has negative implications when trying to find a job, both Ali and Catanese said.

Parents need to be cued into their kids lives, Catanese said.

“They don’t need to be hovering," he said. "They don’t need to analyze everything that happens. But, are they going out with friends? Are they hanging out with friends? Are they happy?”

A boy doesn’t need to be involved in school activities, but they should be involved in at least one activity that they enjoy and is of their choosing, Catanese said.

“The parents can teach by example too,” she said. “They can lead by example and they are not interacting with their own kids. So the kids may feel that is what they are supposed to do.”

Some tips to help parents make sure their boys are socializing:

  • Lead by example. Limit the amount of time a parent spends online and make sure to spend time interacting with their children.
  • Set limits for themselves and their kids on Internet use.
  • Prioritizing for themselves and their children in work, chores, school, socializing. Creating a balance for the kids.
  • Helping a child get involved in sports and group activities.
  • Watch for signs of depression or anxiety.

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