Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to Balance Social Networking with a Social Life

What's the definition of a friend these days? Who do you consider to be your 'friends?" Are they the people you work with, grew up with, see around town, work out at the gym, and meet for lunch -- or are they the folks you chat with on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn?

Our traditional social lives, coupled with modern social networking, is the new standard -- and it's here to stay. How do we balance the expanding possibilities for social connections in a way that is healthy and nourishing, instead of draining and overwhelming? Most modern adults are connected to hundreds of people each month from varied interactions, and the average Facebook user has nearly 150 friends. Astounding, isn't it?

I treasure having a solid community of friends I see in my daily life, as a true lifeline of grounding and support. I have also found the friends I connect with via blogging, emails and social networking fill another wonderful place of social fulfillment never imagined a decade ago. The rise of the internet has become a "living symbol" of global connection, as Llewelyn Vaughn-Lee wrote.

I have come to believe that the Internet and other modes of global communication are not just tools to help us communicate and access information, but also have a symbolic function. They are dynamic images of a global interconnectedness and oneness that belong to life. As symbols they convey a deeper meaning and purpose than their surface function. But in order to access this dimension we have to have the appropriate attitude of receptivity.

I see our traditional relations (the inner) and our networked relations (the outer) to be a new "Tree of Life." Think of a large living tree as a symbol of yourself and your modern, multi-layered social life. The trunk of the tree is you -- maybe you are a slim and lovely Aspen, a strong and sturdy Maple, or a gently bending Willow. What variety describes you best? The ground below you is your home and your community. Is your soil well nourished and watered, or is it dry and cracked? Are you planted in a welcoming place, or are you struggling to survive?

Imagine the roots underneath to be the friends and family you consider near and dear to your heart -- those whom you rely on to get through daily life, or can't wait to see on vacations and holidays. The branches that soar above you are the people you touch more peripherally through social networking, collegial relations and so on. There are endless opportunities to extend new shoots into the sun and find interesting or like-minded people to connect.

Many of the 40 plus crowd have had a slower, more mixed feeling about extending any branches at all. Change does not come as easy to us old Redwoods, who prefer to keep those roots nourished -- and let the branches remain dormant, as in winter time. Many of the younger crowd has begun utilizing the power of global sites to develop vast numbers of friends that boggle the imagination. Their branches have blossomed so far and wide as to create a canopy of leaves, rich with the excitement of new growth.

One cannot fully survive without the other. While many lament the superficiality of social networking, it is a part of the culture, and once resistance is lowered, the possibilities of enhancing your life are very real. For others, the enchantment of new growth can overtake the commitment to maintaining the foundation. All tweets on new branches, and no contact with the ground makes for a very unbalanced life!

In the next two blogs, I will explore both ends of this new "Tree of Life." Next week we will celebrate "tried and true" rooted friendships, and in the following I will highlight those who have had success in social networking relations.

If you were to draw a picture of your tree, what would it look like? How healthy is the trunk (you)? What do your roots or inner relations look like; are they healthy and interconnected or thin, meager and craving some organic fertilizer? How about your branches of outer relations. Do you have any? What do they look like? Are you unfolding new leaves in the sun and perhaps bearing the fruit of new possiblilities?

If your tree is all roots and no branches, it is time to let your fingers do the walking and upgrade your social software. Reach out to others by leaving comments on blogs that you like, set up a Facebook page and watch old friends find you, or join a cause that allows you to connect to others of like mind. The rewards are fairly instant, and fun!

Extending new branches and leaves exclusively can ultimately backfire as well. Imagine a tree with all branches and no roots. What do we have? A tumbleweed comes to my mind -- out of balance and drifting in the wind. Social networking can quickly become an obsession. Remembering and tending your roots is the quickest way to come back to balance.

Untold studies show our deepest feelings of happiness and contentment are linked to the people we have in our life. Let's celebrate them all. Write at least one note today to someone in your inner root system, and to one person in your outer branches, to extend your gratitude for their presence in your life.

And, let's hear it! What does your tree look like? How do you balance your inner and outer social lives? Love to hear your comments, and we can continue on Facebook as well. I am looking for homegrown friend stories for next week, and social success stories for the week after. Thanks!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

NurtureShock Part II: Modern Teens are Bored, Anxious and Exhausted

Last week, I explored the current trends in "overparenting" for younger children, and how many of the best intentions can backfire big time. A small wildfire of commentary followed! Thanks to everyone who shared a wide range of viewpoints. Certainly nothing can be closer to the heart than the fate of our offspring - besides our own report card as parents.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have been stirring this pot for quite some time with their consistent articles in Newsweek and their fantastic book NurtureShock- New Thinking About Children.

What struck me about the dialogue are the pervasive levels of fear. Many parents today are just plain scared. They are scared of sex offenders, pedophiles and kidnappings to such a degree it has become justified to monitor our children's every waking moment. Yet, the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million, and 80% of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives. Experts agree that playing on the playground, at the park, or with the neighborhood kids would not have prevented such heinous acts.

Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and remove recess altogether for middle school and high school aged kids. What is this fear doing to our kids?

Being a teenager is filled with enough anxieties as it is. Having zits, hair in strange places, and feeling stirred by the passions of a first love have turned adolescent worlds upside down since time immemorial. However, teens today are facing issues like being unable to fill their free time, not being allowed to take risks, and being physically exhausted.

The words, "I'm bored" are about as common for teenagers as "I'm hungry." Remember those long summer vacations we used to fill by aimlessly wandering around, making up things to do? Forget it. Kids are often scheduled for a majority of their free time, from toddler-hood through graduation. Extra-curricular activities routinely run through dinner and into the evening on school nights, and it is not uncommon to have games or events on both Saturday and Sunday year round - including the summer.

Modern parents are often exasperated that the moment they return from some activity, the child or teen announces they are bored within ten minutes of being home. How can this be? According to Linda Caldwell, who researches Leisure Studies at Penn State, full fledged boredom sets in around 7th grade, and increases through high school.

Caldwell also found boredom and free time were not necessarily related. Lots of really busy kids were bored- either because they were signed up for a lot of activities they really didn't want to do, or they were so used to having all their time planned out; they had no idea how to fill it on their own.
"The more controlling the parent, the more likely the child is to experience boredom," said Caldwell.

Many successful organizations have instituted "Pareto's Principle" - which states that 80% of effects come from 20% of the cause. In plain English: unscheduled time to look out the window, dream and be bored can bring the greatest creative insights that end up driving the future. Google, Best Buy and other cutting edge organizations offer 20% time off to some of the management staff for hobbies- with unparalleled results in business innovations.

Clearly both adults and children can use Pareto's principle. If teens are not allowed 20% of their time to be less structured, they are robbed of the opportunity to sink into the deeper recesses of their minds to "make something up" or explore their inner selves via making a go-kart, a craft, writing in a diary or even walking around the neighborhood talking to the clouds.

Not having "time off", coupled with our post-9/11, Bush-era regime of fear, has contorted itself into modern "hovering" or "helicopter parents" who cannot let their kids alone, and they are growing up anxious, afraid of their own shadow, and unable to take any risks we would have done in a heartbeat growing up.

According to Time Magazine's article "The Backlash Against Overparenting" Lenore Skenazy, became known as America's Worst Mom," because she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. A Yale educated Mom, she has stood her ground, and written a book called, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

Her argument has been corroborated elsewhere with studies that demonstrate teenagers in particular, need an element of risk in their lives. Dr. Adrianna Galvan at UCLA created ingenious research using fMRI scanners to reveal that teenagers require a greater degree of stimulation, or intense excitement, than adults or children. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, which regulates risk and consequences, takes a simultaneous dip. Big surprise.

"All this fits the pattern we see, where adolescents seem sluggish in literature class, drink like a fish on Saturday nights, and don't seem to realize it's a bad idea to put five friends on a golf cart while driving it down a steep hill with a sharp turn at the bottom," said Bronson.

There is a good reason Arianna dedicated last month to the subject of sleep- as it is a huge issue with teens. The fact is, teens require 9.5 hours of sleep in order to function, regulate emotions and thrive. Most teens have a 7 a.m. bus, and get up around 6 a.m. That means they would have to be asleep at 9:30 p.m. Know ANY teenagers who go to bed at 9:30? Try 11 p.m. to midnight. 6.5 hours of sleep per night is causing rampant exhaustion in teens, increasing anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, ADHD, and obesity. Only 5% of high school kids are getting the adult recommendation of eight hours.

NurtureShock dedicated an entire chapter to the negative effects of sleep, and showed that even losing a single hour of sleep can cause a 6th grader to perform like a 4th grader, and anywhere from 20-33% of kids are falling asleep in class at least once a week. Alarmingly, the brain remains "under construction" until close to age 25, and during sleep time, the brain categorizes and processes what it learns during the day.

A few progressive communities, like Edina, Minnesota took the bull by the horns and pushed back the start times for high school students from 7:25-8:30am. Guess what? SAT scores went up 56 points for math and 156 points. In Lexington, KY, after delaying high school start time, teenage car accidents decreased 25%.

We have a lot to learn, that is for sure. Are your teens tired, anxious and bored? Let's continue our conversation as we look at our next generation of leaders, and how to best serve them.

NurtureShock: How Praise, Protection and PBS are Ruining Our Kids

With the rise of stay at home dads, Einstein babies and hyper competition, being a kid today is radically different than it was a generation ago. As a parent, I have to say that I find the controlled environments and high expectations surrounding how to raise our children to be so different from when I was a kid that it is hard to keep up.

This blog is the first in a two-part series exploring the recent trends in "Over-Parenting." Today, I will focus on some of the circumstances involving younger children, and next week I will turn to teens.

While there are many improvements for life as a kid today - like car seats and really cool playground equipment - a lot of things are downright stressful and disappointing. Here is a top ten list of things I personally can't stand as a modern American parent:
  1. Playdates.

  2. Endless "after school activities" that eliminate dinner altogether

  3. Uggs, Beatles Guitar Hero and cell phones for 9 year-olds

  4. The lack of freedom for kids to ride bikes all over town for fun

  5. No paper routes or lawn mowing or weed pulling for extra cash

  6. No more "Come Home When the Streetlights Are On" neighborhood standards

  7. Fighting constantly to "downshift" our family routine.

  8. Having to serve macaroni & cheese or pizza at every kid gathering

  9. Texting instead of using the spoken word to communicate

  10. Eight% of kids walking to school today vs. over 75% when I was a kid.

What has HAPPENED to us as parents? We bought into the notion that the world is a very scary place, when it is safer than ever. Toddlers are strapped down with every safety device known to man just to get out and learn to rollerskate or ride a bike, and all of their recreational time is carefully planned and monitored from the moment they can crawl.

We have succumbed to the consumer haze, and sold our souls to China. The seductive acceleration of our time over-saturates kids with choices, over-books their time with activities, and pushes them to stress before they should ever know the word.

I recently read a groundbreaking book for parents: NutureShock- New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I was underlining like mad, dog earring pages left and right, and calling my husband every five seconds to read a passage. It's a must-read. Essentially, the take-away is that parents today are treating their kids as if they are mini-adults, when, in fact, they require vastly different tools and parameters to grow up.

Similar to Malcom Gladwell, Bronson and Merryman are journalists who know how to wrangle out some of the most groundbreaking research on children that has been conducted in years, and put it all together in a series of topics that will knock your socks off - like why kids lie, how praising kids paralyzes their growth, and how our focus on "prosocial" TV shows is contributing to relational aggression and bullying.

Let's face it, adults like to be praised. It raises our motivation, and is a key tool in any business environment. However, when children are constantly praised and told they are "smart," it reduces their confidence and motivation. Kids who are touted as smart are often afraid to tackle a challenge because they perceive they should be able to get it instantly. They stop trying.

Rather, children are best served by being praised for their efforts. 'Trying hard,' or 'doing your best' encourages their sense of autonomy and ability, rather than a vague notion of being smart. Think it's easy? Parents have the hardest time remodeling this one, but kids respond almost instantly.

One of the most controversial and potent chapters in the book revolves around "nice" TV, and its potential contribution to the rise in bullying. Interestingly enough, it appears kids are not watching any more TV than a generation ago, but the new trend in programming is towards "prososcial" shows often seen on PBS like Clifford and Caillou or even Sponge Bob. They are supposed to teach our kids how to be 'nice.'

But, it isn't working. We have forgotten that kids do not function like adults, who can learn a resolution or moral of a story at the end. The conflict is what they ingest. Dr. Jamie Ostrov and Dr. Douglas Gentile spent two years studying preschool kids from well off Minnesota families and monitored the types of television programming they watched; from the more violent Power Rangers to the educational PBS shows like Arthur.

They were shocked to discover the increase in any sort of physical aggression was no different between the two, and even more astounded to find that the educational television had a dramatic effect on "relational aggression," which shows up in comments like, "you're not my friend," or "we're not going to play with you anymore."

How can this be? I can see all the new parents bemoaning it now; PBS essentially saves the sanity of any adult who is raising a toddler- don't take that away! Yet, check this out: Ithaca conducted a follow up study to review 470 half-hour television programs commonly watched by children, and recorded every time a character insulted someone or put someone down.

Ninety-six percent of all children's programming includes verbal insults, and of the 2,628 put-downs identified, only 50 circumstances featured some sort of reprimand or correction -- and not once in an educational show. "Fully 84 percent of the time there was only laughter or no response at all," found Dr. Cynthia Scheibe.

"The more kids watched, the crueler they'd be to their classmates," Ostorov reported from the Minnesota study. "The correlation was 2.5 times higher than the correlation between violent media and physical aggression. They were increasingly bossy, controlling, and manipulative, and it was stronger than the connection between violent media and physical aggression."

As a mother, I fully understand the power of guilt, and feeing guilty or responsible for every imperfection in our kids, or every misstep we may take as a parent. This book is not meant to make all of us feel guilty that we are wrecking our children's lives, but rather presents solid and even uplifting revelations into the unique make up of what kids need. Bottom line, kids need some conflict, they need to fight with their siblings, they lie, and they might even benefit from seeing their parents fight when they can also witness the resolution.

Some of the traditional concepts of more free time, being bored, setting consistent rules and not fretting over a game of cowboys and Indians may not be so bad after all.

Let's start a dialogue here this week and next. What say you, parents of younger children? Are you stressed out and wondering what happened to parenting life? What do you think of some of the current parenting trends- both positive and negative? Leave a comment below, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.