The Big Disconnect

Winter 2015

By Catherine Steiner-Adair

The digital-age transformation of our homes, schools, and families has opened a new world of opportunity for learning, and a new world of challenge as educators come to terms with the 21st-century realities of students’ lives online and on social media. What began (and continues) as an extraordinary expansion of learning opportunities has also catalyzed a culture clash between the community of an independent school - grounded in integrity, respect, and a vibrant intellectual life - and the culture students inhabit online and in gaming and social media, where cynicism, sexual exploitation, social cruelty, and a general shock-and-awe standard are often the coin of the realm. Students are enthusiastic digital citizens, but sometimes their enthusiasm trumps their maturity.

For the past 25 years, I’ve been consulting to independent schools around the country and abroad and have had the pleasure of working for years with certain schools in an ongoing dialogue about creating a school culture on a range of issues. About 10 years ago, I started fielding calls from school administrators and teachers asking for help regarding student online behavior, and its offline consequences. The students in question range from fifth-graders straight through high school. Today, as then, the explanations often start out with a perplexing quandary:

This is a really good kid, from a nice family - but we have a situation… two police officers are outside my door with a copy of an email thread that, if you didn’t know the student, you would think implies that (he or she) is a threat to our school community, full of hateful and violent language. But I know this kid, and (he or she) is a really good kid....
Four years ago, I was able to collect data and do research at 30 schools on the impact of technology on the psychological health of children and adolescents and the quality of community in their school cultures. That was a basis for my book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Much of my work since then - in areas such as school culture, social-emotional learning, faculty training, parent education, and integrating technology - has expanded to address challenges raised not only in schools, but increasingly after school within the student’s family and in the larger extended school community. The additional focus: the dual online/offline lives of students, the psychological fallout, and the need to clarify parent and school responsibilities when students engage online in schoolwork and social media.

The Internet and social media make it possible for students to connect in all kinds of engaging, healthy, fun, and even life-saving ways. It’s crucial to remember that the majority of teen interactions online are positive. When they use the Internet constructively, students on the social margins can often connect across friendship groups and discover a new center. But, of course, the flip side to online engagement is its potentially detrimental influence on behavior and the consequences of that behavior in students’ relationships and learning.

In this parallel online “school,” a great deal of connecting and learning goes on. Sometimes it’s fun, playfully raucous, genuine, generous, and even life-saving. But it also can be difficult, hurtful, sometimes hateful, and provide a fraught introduction to life’s hardest lessons, particularly on social networking sites.

The Online and Offline “Me”

As the boundary between school and home has blurred, that one-world reality has brought middle and high school students’ online and offline lives into sharp relief. In this always-on convergence culture, boundaries for behavior have blurred. As students text or post or hang out online, often working on school assignments together, they are sending messages and content that they would never share at school, often using language that they would never say to someone’s face, language that, if used with classmates at school, would lead to disciplinary action. This is the newest extension of the troubling gap between how young people relate in class, in school, and with faculty and staff during the school day, and how they relate online.

We know that technology itself is not to blame. Instead, our focus should be on children’s inexperience, naïveté, and curiosity about the power they wield on those networked platforms and sprawling public spaces. In real-time or online seminars with faculty instructors, we see the best of both worlds. Students learn together online, but because a teacher is present, they don’t call each other bad names or do stupid, crude stuff. However, when they’re doing homework, although they may be on a school-related website, in the privacy of their homes and without an adult present, they often behave in ways that are distracting, inappropriate, or worse, highly charged and disturbing. I’m referring to behavior that seriously crosses the line between what is socially responsible behavior, as defined by the school’s culture and values, and what is socially acceptable and normative behavior on sites like Tumblr, Tinder,, Snapchat, and Kik.

The issue isn’t that middle schoolers and high schoolers can be crude or cruel; that’s always been true. The difference today is that an insult, slur, or rant now travels instantly and everywhere online, can be read by nearly anyone, and thus has the potential to do damage far in excess of a face-to-face imbroglio.

In the private online life that threads through their days and nights, our students are not always their best selves. We have an unusual, unprecedented situation in that kids are doing schoolwork as assigned, yet behaving in ways the school would never condone. The results often create highly challenging situations for heads of schools, faculty, parents, and students themselves. This is especially true of student behavior that, if it were tracked to an individual, could or would involve disciplinary consequences. A night of “doing homework” online can lead to serious unintended outcomes.

Culture Clash: School Values vs. Online Values

Students’ complicated dual lives are a natural expression of the fact that schools’ core values are often the complete opposite of online culture norms. At school, we talk about honesty. Yet online, it’s common practice for kids to falsify information about themselves and other people, even to pretend to be somebody they’re not, to lie about their age, to lie about parental consent, and to cheat.

At school, we talk about being your “best self” - be authentic, be who you really are. Yet image is everything to this generation, and kids work hard managing not one but two identities: There is “me” the “perfect student.” And there is “me” my online self, my best guess of what’s perfectly cool. It’s a world, too often, of sexy selfies, “fakebook” identities, and the edgiest YouTube videos.

At school, we talk about creating a compassionate, caring community of learners. Be kind, we say. Online, it’s cool to be cruel. You can gain social capital by humiliating people. In school, we encourage intellectual risk and exploration. But the kinds of risks kids take online push the limits on shock and awe, and often flout the law and flirt with real danger.

At school, we talk about the need to think before you speak, to consider the impact you’ll have. Online, it’s an “OMG” highly reactive world in which a quick, edgy, escalating retort gets the most attention.

In school, we talk about accountability and transparency. In the online world, snarky, sneaky, hacking attacks are highly prized, and anonymity erases the need to experience and be accountable for your impact.

Sexuality, self-expression, race, class, culture, religion: most schools work hard to cultivate a culture of mutual respect regarding all aspects of a person’s identity. Yet one of the biggest areas of risk-taking online is to push the edge of racist, homophobic, and misogynist content. Complicating this further, students who do this are often not yet neurologically, psychologically, or developmentally equipped to understand the consequences of their actions - clipping and pasting sexually graphic song lyrics or forwarding disturbing videos, for instance - much less to anticipate the repercussions.

Psychological Fallout

As a psychologist and school consultant, I am often asked why so many adolescent students are so anxious today. Many factors are in play, but students themselves identify their online lives and digital diversions as big stressors. Often beginning with the caveat that they “love tech and can’t imagine life without it,” they describe the range of emotions and distress that are always just a click away: an unexpected and hurtful or inflammatory text or email, a text war, or gossipy online banter. This edgy digital drumbeat can amp up anxiety levels for senders and receivers alike. Some of the things I hear about, and confirmed in research, include increased self-consciousness about appearance and increased body dissatisfaction after seeing everyone’s “perfect photo.” There is anxiety about being unpopular, and stress about the parties and events they see in posted photos but which they weren’t invited to. They lose hours of study time and sleep, “addicted” to “just checking.” The worry about what people are “saying” (texting) runs day and night.

Some students describe an increasing sense of social anxiety about hanging out and socializing face to face. They feel uncomfortable talking spontaneously in conversation (“I just hide in my smartphone to avoid eye contact and pretend that I’m in something cool.”) Kids talk about avoiding parties or social events because it seems safer and “more fun” to hang out online where you’re more in control, where you can “subtext” your friend and have a whole other conversation, often about how to respond in another current online conversation.

Research tells us that, at the most basic level, children’s social skills may be in decline from spending less face-to-face time and more time on screens. A recent UCLA study1 of sixth-graders at one school found that students who went five days without even glancing at a screen - no smartphones, TV, or other digital screen - did substantially better at reading human emotions in facial cues than their peers at the same school who continued to spend hours a day looking at their electronic devices. The study is one of many emerging now that suggest the need for thoughtful attention to the impact of technology on the developing brain and social and emotional development.

What struck me deeply in so many of the interviews for The Big Disconnect, and since, is that high school kids talk about how complicated so many of the once-simple school interactions have become. They know that their online selves experiment and take social risks that they would be too shy or sensible to do in class or in real life. They struggle when the consequences play out in class, in school, in real life. How do you sit next to a boy or girl in class who sent you a sexually graphic video clip under the guise, “Here’s something to help with your history assignment”? How do you respond to sexual come-ons, troubling trash talk, or content meant to shock - such as the one that has come up in different schools: a text or email from another student: “Do you do anal?” Whether intended to be snarky or funny, or a genuine question, perhaps flirtatious, a way to test for a reaction, the problem with a text in a situation like this is that the recipient is without tone; it’s impossible to know what the intention is behind the query. The same phrase can cause some students to laugh, others to cry, freak out, be angry, call their parents, start a text war, spread rumors, have an anxiety attack, be unable to study, or not want to go to school the next day. Students ask, “Am I supposed to pretend it never happened?” 

Middle school children leading digital lives pose a particular challenge. Middle school teachers often hesitate to leave the classroom for too long given the lack of impulse control of kids at this stage of development. These 11- to 13-year-olds find the Internet and online world irresistible for many of the same reasons teens do: the fun of connecting to friends, exploring Pinterest, designing clothes or robots - all the opportunities to cocreate and collaborate with friends anywhere. As preteens, however, their developing brains are even more susceptible to the neurological stimulant of online games such as Candy Crush or from just surfing the Internet for diversions. The anonymity, the ability to sneak into the world of young adults, the fun of joking and pranking and illegally downloading music, hacking and pretending to be someone else, taking embarrassing photos and posting them, filming a YouTube video that you think will make you famous: it’s endlessly compelling.

Regardless, in real life, students have to come back to school after they’ve had a whole school-based experience in the extended-day online - one that can leave them feeling fragile or vulnerable or shut down in class for reasons that are invisible to teachers. This is the complexity of our students’ dual lives today.

Our Challenge and Opportunity

What is also clear from my work with students in elementary, middle, and high school is how hungry they are for their teachers to teach them pro-social strategies for dealing with these difficult social dynamics - online and irl. Whether eight or 12 or 17 years old, students want to learn how to manage their social selves, how to respond thoughtfully, assertively, and effectively, and in a way that feels responsible and mature. They want to be able to have honest and real conversations with their peers, and their teachers, their advisors, their dorm parents, their coaches, in advisory, in classes - not solely with a school counselor or psychologist.

Students long for a safe place in school to have these discussions using the same language they’re using or hearing online; it doesn’t feel authentic to students to use euphemisms to dive into discussions about the deep power of words to hurt. They want to have intelligent conversations and discuss content that runs aground in racist, homophobic, mean, and humiliating language without running the risk of their friend, or even an antagonist, being suspended. They are afraid that the adults will be “scary, crazy, or clueless” and only make matters worse. They’ve seen teachers and parents jump too quickly into disciplinary mode (scary); or overreact (crazy) and escalate the drama; or offer some platitude (clueless) like “that happened online, let’s just focus on what’s happening here at school.” Fully aware that what they say and do in their online school community would most likely lead to a disciplinary situation if it occurred in school, students can feel as if they have nowhere to turn to learn how to bridge these worlds.

Certainly, a counselor’s office can be a safe harbor for honest, realistic discussion. But they need more than that. Parents also need help to know how to respond when their child transgresses.2 

As learning becomes more screen-based, and students connect and learn together outside of regular school hours, it’s essential to balance increased tech use with stronger programs in social-emotional learning and other steps to help students manage their dual lives in their bicultural online/offline school community. Schools can reboot advisory systems, core curriculum, faculty training, and parent education. Schools should regularly assess with all constituents how tech integration is going, looking particularly to see if technology is undermining school culture, and, if so, find ways to strengthen school spirit. There is nothing here that we, as educators, can’t do and can’t help with. The most dangerous thing is to be in denial.


1. The study was published in the October 2014 (Vol. 39) issue of Computers in Human Behavior.

2. See:
Catherine Steiner-Adair

Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and author. She has consulted to more than 350 independent and public schools, parents, and students, on a wide range of topics related to strengthening children’s social and emotional development, shaping school culture, and deepening parents’ connections to their children. She can be reached through her website,