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How “Belonging” Has Changed Since You Were a Kid

Posted By Julie Stevens, Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What You Need to Know Now and 5 Things You Can Start Doing Tomorrow to Help Shape Your Child’s Identity


Can you comfortably answer the following questions?

  • What does it mean to belong?
  • How is “belonging” in the 21st century world different for our kids (compared to our own experience when we were school-aged)?

These questions are important because the groups to which we belong shape our social identity as well as our behavior toward others. Largely, we are who we affiliate with. Parents recognize the high stakes for their children when they carefully choose a neighborhood, a school, a religious community, sports teams, and summer camps.

How Has “Family Belonging” Changed?

In a rigorous examination of “belonging” in the 21st century, respondents to a 2007 study conducted by the Social Issues Research Centre in Great Britain reported that family and friendship were the primary “anchors” of their social identities. On first blush, this is not only unsurprising, but suggests that little has changed since today’s parents were kids themselves.

However, while the study acknowledged the ongoing centrality of family, researchers noted that the families to which we belong are significantly different from the traditional “nuclear” family model – a married man and woman raising their children. According to the 2010 census, only 23.4% of California households could be described as representative of this traditional model. So even kids from households comprised of Mom, Dad and siblings will have plenty of peers whose family composition differs, not to mention peers whose families represent different nationalities and cultural traditions. We need to help kids understand and celebrate the model of family that “anchors” their sense of belonging, while also stressing that there is no “one way” or “right way” to be a loving family.

"For parents, 'friend' was only a noun, not a verb, and similarly friendship was primarily a private rather than a public experience."

A New Definition of “Friendship”

As quickly as our notion of “family” is evolving, how our kids conceptualize “friendship” represents a significant 21st century shift. One of the top “anchors” of social identity in the previously mentioned study was “belonging online.” For parents, “friend” was only a noun, not a verb, and similarly friendship was primarily a private rather than a public experience. Now children grow up as digital natives, engaging in relationships online long before they are old enough to drive.

Teen Social Media Usage

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center report on “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy,” the median number of Facebook friends for all teen Facebook users was 300. Furthermore, the larger the teen’s network, the more likely he or she was to share personal information. Overall, over 90% of all teen Facebook users shared their real name and photos of themselves, and viewed public posts as a primary way to connect with friends. Teens are navigating issues of social identity and privacy online by using different social media services for different social purposes:

  • Snapchat with an individual friend (akin to texting, but with a visual);
  • Instagram to share pictures (“This is what I’m seeing right now.”);
  • Twitter to follow favorite celebrities (according to Jason Hennessy, CEO of a tech-based marketing agency in Atlanta, “Twitter is like a backstage pass…you could send a tweet to Justin Beiber…and there’s a chance he might tweet you back.”).


Increasingly, some teens are limiting their use of sites like Facebook, because of the time and energy involved in curating a Facebook page and the potential for exposing oneself to hurtful comments, impulsively engaging in rude exchanges, and otherwise being drawn into excessive relationship drama. With recent headlines of the arrests of two Florida girls, aged 14 and 12, on felony charges of aggravated stalking that led to the suicide of a 12 year-old former schoolmate, both parents and teens are aware of the moral and legal ramifications of cyber-bullying when online relationships go horribly awry.

Guiding Your Child’s Relationships

Just like face-to-face relationships, online relationships have the potential to be nurturing or cruel, healthy or unhealthy. The following 5 tips are ways that parents can influence their child’s relationships, especially those online:

  1. Educate Yourself: Become as knowledgeable and aware as possible about social media, including relying on kids to share their expertise as digital natives
  1. Dispel Popular Myths: Engage kids in discussions about the unrealistic messages conveyed by popular culture (i.e., true love happens over the time it takes to film The Bachelor, physical appearance is the basis for lasting relationships, outlandish or rude behavior will attract desirable attention)
  1. Critically Compare In-person vs. Online Relationships: Help kids examine the differences in direct vs. online relationships, (such as saying “I don’t think we can be friends anymore” vs. being “unfriended” with a click of the mouse) and point out that much of communication involves body language and tone of voice, which are absent in online formats
  1. Model Behavior: Model healthy, respectful relationships in their interactions with spouses and significant others
  1. Provide Places to “Practice:” Give their kids as much unmediated (i.e. direct and personal) social experience as possible from an early age, helping them to learn social skills such as shaking hands, making eye contact, and verbalizing concern for others.


Belonging and relationship in the 21st century and beyond will continue to pose challenges as our children grow. But effective parental guidance can determine whether the scope and anonymity of cyberspace places our kids in a lawless dystopia or a landscape where they can connect with others in meaningful, mutually gratifying ways.



Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [Grade: Upper]  [subject: Moral Development & Character Education]  [Subject: Parenting]  [Type: Article]  [User Group: Administration]  [User Group: Parents]  [User Group: Teachers]  belonging  character  child  friendship  Parenting  peers  social media 

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