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Ask the Expert: Rappahannock Area Community Services Board

Get connected: Trading digital for in-person interactions can boost mental health for all ages


Genuine social connections are a basic human need. Our relationships with family, friends, coworkers, coaches, teachers, pastors, neighbors and other individuals are a cornerstone of well-being for all ages.


But there’s a growing body of evidence that our social connections are fraying—and the resulting isolation is one factor that is driving the nation’s mental health crisis. 


The number of high school seniors who met up with friends in person “almost every day” dropped from 44% in 2010 to 32% in 2022, according to a national survey of adolescents called Monitoring the Future. That same survey found that social meetups for eighth graders declined from an average of 2.5 per week in 2000 to 1.5 in 2021.


There are similar trends among adults. According to a 2023 survey by market research firm CivicScience, less than half of U.S. Adults (43%) report socializing with friends in person on a daily or weekly basis. Sixteen percent reported that they rarely or never meet up with friends.


With social media and a Rolodex of contacts in our pockets at all times, it can feel like we’re more connected than ever. But technology cannot replace our basic need to form authentic connections in person with other people.


Here's the good news: You can take simple, proactive steps to increase levels of connectedness for yourself, your children and other people around you. This important work starts at birth. Here, providers with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board and other community partners offer insights and strategies to help us all remember to put connection at the center of our lives.


Young children need in-person interactions


In her work as a developmental educator with the Parent Education-Infant Development program run through RACSB, Anne Longenecker emphasizes to parents that early childhood is a critical time for wiring social skills into the growing brain.


But when screen time crowds out opportunities for person-to-person interactions and tactile manipulation of toys, important neural connections can be missed.


“What tends to have impact is when I tell parents that researchers have literally found evidence that the brain is being wired differently when children are on screens,” she said. “The young brain looks different on MRIs for children who have spent more time with phones, tablets, TVs and other devices.”


She explains that it’s important that children activate the parts of their brain that govern social interaction in the first three years. Because just like any muscle in our bodies, if we don’t use it, we are likely to lose it.


She and her colleagues at PE-ID consistently tell parents that the time they spend on the floor playing alongside their children and interacting face-to-face will pay dividends for their children’s social, cognitive and developmental health.  And no—the latest YouTube sensation or the most advanced “academic” tablet game is not a substitute.


“Think of the screen as a candy bar. It doesn’t matter if your child can imitate Ms. Rachel or match colors on a tablet game,” she said. “It does not stimulate the same neurons that true in-person play and interactions do.”


School-age kids need models of healthy tech use


Jennifer Bateman, a prevention specialist who works with children from preschool through high school, says she is noticing more and more children who come to preschool without basic social and emotional skills, such as how to manage emotions, or how to read facial cues in order to take turns speaking in a conversation.


“With a screen, it’s ‘my turn’ all the time,” she says. “There is a whole lot that gets lost in translation between a screen and a human-to-human interaction.”


But Bateman acknowledges that technology is a fact of life for children in school these days. By middle school, many students are filing most of their assignments digitally, and even the Virginia Standards of Learning tests are taken on screens today.


The key for parents, she says, is setting boundaries so that screen time doesn’t crowd out in-person interactions at home, and modeling a healthy relationship with technology.


Timers can be a helpful tool, she says. For children, setting a timer within a parental control app such as Apple’s Screen Time—or just an external timer in the home—can help avoid meltdowns when the device goes away. For parents, setting a timer on how long you’re going to check your work e-mail before giving your full attention to your child can ensure hours don’t pass mindlessly.


Bateman also recommends designating places in your home or times during your daily routine that everyone understands are screen-free.


“So, for example, dinner, or the first 30 minutes after you get home. Take that breath away from screens. Get away, walk, go outside,” she said. “The time we spend on screens is not going to give us back even one-tenth of what we need as social people.”


Learn more

Dive into the research on the benefits of connectedness, and learn more strategies to build connectedness at home at

Connection Builders: Mentors

As Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Greater Fredericksburg, Sandra Erickson repeatedly sees the difference that a caring, consistent, connected adult relationship can make for a young person.

“It’s about having someone in their corner who’s there to cheer them on. There to listen,” Erickson said.

BBBS has helped generations of child-mentor partners build connected relationships. Erickson said the organization emphasizes five “healing gestures” that can help build connection.

Celebrate – Acknowledge achievements large and small.

Comfort – Show compassion and listen without judgment.

Listen – Show interest in a child’s passions.

Collaborate – Ask children their opinion.

Inspire – Expose children to new opportunities.

Connection Builders: Teams

Whether they are athletic, academic or job-related, teams can teach children how to depend on others and be dependable. As a soccer coach for Massaponax High School and Fredericksburg Football Club, Kevin Leahy works to make sure his teams are as connected socially and emotionally as they are on the field. Here are some of his proven strategies:


Make them pay attention – After every game, one of Leahy’s players must award the team’s special hard hat to a “player of the game.” While the players have come to love this tradition, Leahy likes it because it requires the players to be present and paying attention throughout the game. “They have to be engaged, and they have to realize it’s not about them all the time. I think that really resonates,” he said.

Make connection a habit – At the start and end of every practice, Leahy builds in time for players to talk about what’s on their minds, and what’s going on in their lives outside soccer. He also makes a personal goal to connect with two or three players one-on-one every day about how they are doing outside of the sport. By making reflection routine, Leahy is helping his players build the skill of putting words to their emotions in conversation with others.




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