This week, Anne Collier shared key findings from two decades of Net Safety. While her overview encompasses top concerns of families, educators, and advocates for children and youth, it was her second takeaway, that children’s social media use is the exposure of their deepest needs, that hit home for me–not just with respect to my children, but also in regard to myself, friends, family, and a broader social network.

As an educational psychologist with a focus on early childhood education, I have worked with pre-service teachers for over 15 years to explore how all behavior is a form of communication. If we learn how to see, hear, and speak the language of children we are able to translate how their behaviors (e.g., crying, playing, biting, rocking) represent their wishes, wonders, and worries. As I read Anne Collier’s reflection, it dawned on me that, once again, we have falsely separated childhood from the rest of human experience.

This takeaway is fundamental to our ability to connect with children and youth in a digital world in which adults often feel out of touch, or at a distance with respect to understanding youth culture. As Anne emphasizes, children’s social media is a powerful window into the deepest needs and desires to connect and feel acceptance by their closest connections. She makes the connection that higher levels of social media activity may be, in some cases, indicative of the increased unmet needs in face-to-face, real time interactions.

In other words, youth who feel a strong sense of belonging and acceptance in their offline interactions may not have the developmental need to use social media as a supplement to more authentic connection.

Translating online behavior in this way invites the opportunity to ask different questions about online activity and the use of social media. Instead of solely focusing on screen time, vulnerability, and overexposure, families would do well to engage in conversations about the quality and purpose of online activity. By asking ourselves, as adults in the lives of children and youth, about the needs expressed in the online activity, we can more effectively and intentionally respond in a way that builds trust and authentic connection.

This takeaway also opens up the conversation when it comes to adults’ online activity.

Similar to youth, our online activity is a form of our own needs for belonging, connection, acceptance, and affiliation. As we support our youth in balancing online behaviors and emotional wellness, we can reflect on our experiences as well. What does my pattern of posting reveal to myself about unmet needs or desires? How can I reflect constructively on my social media use to learn about alternative, possibly healthier ways, that I can communicate and meet those needs?

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About the Author: Amy Howell holds a doctorate in Education Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and focuses on Early Childhood Education.