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COMMITMENT| 15.12.2021

Begoña Ibarrola, “Young people need emotional education, because the uncertainties they have to deal with are increasing”

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BEGOÑA IBARROLABegoña Ibarrola is a psychologist, an author of books for children and young adults, and a specialist in emotional intelligence. She recently participated in a workshop sponsored by Fundación MAPFRE entitled The rights of children and involvement of parents in the digital context. During this event, she emphasized the importance of teaching kids about responsibility and the appropriate use of technologies. She also explained the need for dialogue with them, so that they can develop a realistic sense of self-esteem from a very early age. She says we need to help them find a balance between the fast-paced world of today and unhurried reflection, making friends from an early age and acquiring essential life skills such as resilience and empathy.

What hazards do children and teenagers now face in relation to new technologies, and how can parents encourage responsible use?

New technologies can be very attractive. However, when they are used in an inappropriate way – such as for excessive amounts of time – they can cause a dangerous level of social isolation. Young people may find it more gratifying to look for things, find information, or engage with others through the Internet, rather than through direct contact. I think this is a very serious problem, and so are some of the threats to privacy: some children and teenagers are unable to distinguish between the private sphere and public sphere. They may run the risk of posting something online that they will regret later, but others will still be able to share it or use it against them. There are also cases of cyberbullying, which is a form of indirect violence that can cause so much harm. There are kids who would never dare to physically attack someone in person, but if they can attack someone online, they won’t hesitate to do something harmful. Finally, I think there is also a problem with many young people having access to information that is inappropriate for their age group.

The only thing parents can do is encourage responsible use by educating their kids, not just by trying to prevent them from accessing certain types of content, but also by helping them develop emotional tools. However, just like any other skill, responsibility is developed by putting it into practice, and this must be done based upon each child’s age and maturity level. This requires spending time with them, talking to them a lot, and being very directly involved. It is clear that a child or teenager who is responsible will also use technology in a responsible way.  

Which do you think is more effective: a focus on education and sharing of responsible practices – based on parental involvement – or monitoring and controlling their profiles and usage times?  Or a combination of the two?

I think both strategies can be combined, so that rules and restrictions are established, using software that can prevent access to certain contents – like Family Link from Google, among others – and usage time is monitored, but only after explaining the reasons for these things, so that there is an educational aspect and your kids can understand why you are doing this. Education requires love, but also setting of boundaries in all areas, and this is also true in the context of technologies. When children are younger, the level of restrictions has to be greater, but once they are around 9 or 10 years old, we can begin to negotiate. We can even make deals regarding possible extensions of usage time, or about allowing access to certain types of content, but only with an adult present – accompanying them – when viewing the types of content they are curious about. Communication is essential.  

And how much influence can other factors have, like age, responsibility, etc.?

From my experience as a psychologist, and having worked with colleagues who are neurologists, I think that until a child is at least 6 years old, access to technologies should be limited to speaking with the grandparents, or looking at a photo on a phone, and not much else. Then up until age 12, more use can be permitted but with supervision, and this is the same with boys and with girls. In my opinion, no child is mature enough to use social networks before age 12. The years between age 6 and 12 should be used for constructing satisfactory social relationships: building a network of real friends and being exposed to the world. Of course, they can do chats, or play some video games together, but it is essential to dedicate enough time for them to play and have contact in the real world, instead of online. If children are introduced to the virtual world too early, they can miss out on some things that may be very difficult to recover later. I have seen many kids who, at 12 years of age, have never been taught how to make friends. These are things a maturing child needs to learn at the right time. By the time those kids become teenagers they have experienced tremendous problems, and they resort to technologies as a way of compensating for a lack of person-to-person contact. 

“Self-esteem, resilience, and empathy: pillars for constructing the future”

As an expert in emotional education, what is it that children need to learn?

The first emotional skill a child needs to acquire is self-esteem, based on self-awareness. This has to be a realistic sense of self-esteem, where children learn to trust their own abilities, while also recognizing their limitations. Children should not be given an idealized self-image, but taught to accept themselves as they are. This can help prevent that addiction to “likes” that many teenagers are now experiencing, and it can help them feel secure about themselves regardless of what is being shared on social networks. This also goes hand-in-hand with assertiveness: the ability to state an opinion, without being overly affected if others don’t agree with it. 

It is also important for children and teenagers to understand that emotions are a dimension of life that gives it richness. This needs to be taught, that all of the emotions we can experience in this world – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and even disgust – have value. They help us adapt and respond to a wide range of situations. But what is happening now? On the social networks, there is a sort of tyranny of happiness, where it may seem like everyone is supposed to be constantly happy and smiling, etc. A child or teenager with good emotional awareness knows that life presents a whole range of colors, and that all emotions play a part in this: they can share their sad times too, and talk about their worries with their good friends, even expressing their fears and asking for help. Everything doesn’t need to have a happy face on it… Girls are especially susceptible to these contents, which many times present images of the ideal body. They compare these with their own appearance, and if they don’t have good self-esteem and emotional awareness, they may think this is what they need to emulate. 

Emotional self-control is also very important, which means knowing how to regulate the emotions, and this includes the way kids act on the Internet and social networks, where so much is done impulsively. In general, many people use social networks and the Internet as a place to vent their anger and frustration. But so much harm can be caused by words, images, or messages that someone may later regret, but where the damage has been done because they were already sent. Empathy is fundamental for realizing that what we do online or on social networks can affect other people. Kids need to be able to ask themselves, how should I express this? How should I say it? That type of reflection will prevent them from committing acts of violence, even remotely, or from just being rude in general. I think that giving young people these types of emotional skills helps prepare them for operating in that online world, where things happen with such immediacy. In the real world, things don’t happen so automatically, there are processes that are followed. 

What is your view of how things are right now? What have young people gained or lost?

I think there is a lot of discomfort. Statistics show that consultations with psychologists and psychiatrists have tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, and lockdowns have caused suicide rates to increase. There is not enough emotional education, and kids today lack the skills they need for knowing how to deal with difficulties. They are not resilient, because nobody taught them how to be. There are many things in life where we do not get to choose what happens – we have to adapt instead. But our kids don’t know how to differentiate between the things that they can’t change and will have to tolerate, and the things that they can change. I think that 40 years ago children were much more free, they had more time for playing outdoors, and the adults also gave them more attention because they had more time available. Those were less stressful times, with more creativity because kids had to invent their own games. They had another advantage too: you could share with your grandparents, there was contact between the generations that was a source of wisdom and consistency. You could often tell your grandparents things your parents didn’t know. I wouldn’t say that young people these days are less creative. They are creative, but on another level, often with what they are doing online. However, they get bored because they don’t know how to make use of their free time, and they become addicted to technology because of that boredom. Technology allows them to make connections, but they lose contact with adults, and they end up without role models to imitate. Kids today feel stressed out. It used to be unthinkable to find a child needing counseling for that problem. Now there are children with symptoms of depression appearing at 4 years old, whereas before they didn’t tend to appear until they were at least 14. In terms of mental health, things have gotten worse. 

We have also lost the natural context of life, there is a lack of patience these days: before, you might have to wait a long time just to get the tire on your bicycle inflated to go for a ride, it might take all afternoon just to get ready, etc.

There is another problem too: the phases of childhood are speeding up. We want children to act like adults, we want teenagers to be mature, but it takes time for these change of season to occur… 

And in my view, academic standards are creating another stress factor. There are things being taught during high school that used to be taught at the universities. This is how it is now if you want to be competitive in terms of education, learning languages, IT skills, etc. There is a lack of free time for developing hobbies, and this is a problem because clearly children need free time in order to develop, to interact with their peers, to allow conflicts to arise and be resolved. But there is one thing we have gained, and that is access to information: these days you can learn about anything you want to.

All of this seems to be overloading the cognitive dimension…

Sometimes this is only superficial learning. These days children and teenagers are much more exposed to the world, before there was so much we didn’t know… This gives them a perspective on global problems and they can feel a sense of solidarity. They have access to resources all over the world, they can travel, etc. However, what worries me is that the combination of lots of knowledge and a lack of maturity can produce minds that are very well informed, but personalities that are very fragile. We are seeing that this emotional fragility has become a psychological problem, because we have not given enough attention to their minds, or to their emotions, and they have not been given the kind of tools they need in order to deal with difficulties. This is why I believe that emotional education should be introduced in the classroom, as a strategy for improving quality of life for our children and teenagers, so they can understand how unlikely it is that they will only experience good times in life. Good times do not require preparation, but bad times do, and they have to know how to cope with uncertainty, because the uncertainties they are facing are increasing. We live in a society where it is hard to make predictions about what will be happening even a year from now. This means that we need to make plans that are realistic, to set realistic goals, to take things little-by-little while observing what is happening around us. We need to learn how to be flexible and how to adapt.

Can you share any strategies that seem to be working?

One strategy is to make kids feel empowered, to help them discover their own strengths and abilities that do not depend upon anyone else. A lot of this has to do with developing self-esteem, but it also means making them aware that they have talents that could change the world. I think that many of our young people feel very discouraged because they think that the world has already been made. We need to tell them, no! You are part of a generation that can change the world! What talents do you have? Helping them realize that their talents can change the world, and giving them the self-motivation to do this: these are very valuable tools. This is something that can put their minds and their ideas in motion, along with their hearts. We need to demonstrate that we have confidence in them, and give them the tools they need to build their own path, but by using praise, not criticism. We need to show confidence in their potential to change the things we have done wrong in the past, because the world we are giving them has so many problems. A child or teenager who feels good can share that well-being with others, but one who feels bad cannot make that same kind of positive contribution to society. 

Most teenagers think that they will not even be able to find a job. I always tell them that they will find a job that doesn’t even exist yet. And I think that entrepreneurship is another way to make a difference and encourage change.  

So self-confidence is the essential tool for development and resilience?

If I had to list the most important strengths, I think there would be three. Resilience is a term that can describe much of what is needed, and along with self-esteem, it is one of the pillars upon which a young person can construct his or her future, to grow in a well-rounded way. But those are both personal abilities, and so I would also include a third: empathy, which is interpersonal. We are living in an interconnected world. Empathy is one of the skills that companies are looking for today and that they value the most. They want people with the ability to cooperate and share, who can use dialogue to resolve conflicts in an amicable way. 

As companies, what can we do to promote emotional education?

In general, companies should show a little more faith in young people, because they are the future. Helping them to become entrepreneurs, to generate ideas and be creative, even if their ideas are still a little unrefined… I always encourage companies to offer internships to young people, so they can have an opportunity to learn about business from an inside perspective. They can contribute creative ideas, while also gaining an understanding of the practical side, because if they don’t understand the realities of the business world, their ideas will remain in the abstract. It is very important for them to find mentors at their companies – this is an area where I had difficulties myself – who can help them adapt to those surroundings. It would be wonderful for a company to say: let’s bring in a group of young people, so they can apply their unlimited imaginations to thinking about how we could confront the challenges we are facing.

At the time when this interview took place, MAPFRE had implemented a project in Brazil entitled 1,000 ideas for the future. It collects creative ideas from children and teenagers about ways to change the future, with awards given for the best ideas. At MAPFRE we believe in you, do you?