Many parents are on board with the idea that time away from screen media, with increased face-to-face social interaction, will improve their teen’s social skills and social relationships. In one field experiment, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, teenagers who spent time at an outdoor education camp showed significant improvement in social skills, particularly nonverbal emotional cues, compared to controls. Wilderness therapy programs take this a step further by using evidence-based strategies to strengthen group dynamics and facilitate conversations about adolescent relationships on and offline.

Social Skills Learned Online 

It would be inaccurate to say that online socializing doesn’t teach teens social skills, but it does require a set of social skills that don’t always translate the same way in face-to-face interactions. The virtual social world found across social media platforms does not compare to the level of intimacy of offline relationships or spontaneous social interactions. Responses are planned out and monitored by “read receipts” or reduced to a “like” or “share.” With the rise of apps like Snapchat, many conversations occur using entirely pictures with no context. 

Socializing online does not give teens and young adults the opportunity to practice transferable social skills and how to be present in relationships, so they often experience a disconnect in real-world interactions. Being able to understand entire conversations in emoji or GIF format, quoting memes, or mastering the Tik Tok “For You Page” algorithm may be useful social skills in internet culture, but they aren’t as adaptive in real life. While teens may feel comfortable commenting on stranger’s posts on their feed, they struggle to know how to respond when meeting new people in person and are quick to pull up a QR code for their social media account so that they can “get to know each other more.” 

Many young adults thrive off the anonymity of online relationships, as people don’t really know who they are and there is less accountability for their words and actions.  People can travel from website to website, changing their personality, without ever developing a coherent sense of identity. As a result, young adults who struggle with social media addiction often experience social anxiety and identity issues, especially when they try to limit their time on social media. 

Why is Screen Time Limited in Wilderness Therapy Programs?

One of the most difficult parts for teens adjusting to a wilderness environment is not being connected to their online lives and relationships, but it is also one of the most rewarding parts of the program according to many students when they graduate. 

As smartphones are becoming more ingrained into society as a teen’s “social lifeline,” it is hard for teens to conceptualize that going offline may actually help teens strengthen the quality of the relationships that they have. While limiting screen time may initially bring up more feelings of social anxiety and loneliness in teens, increased social interaction away from screens encourages teens to practice and build upon relationship skills. Over time, teens realize that authentic relationships dig below the surface and can stand the test of time.

There are many moments in wilderness therapy where teens talk about wishing they could take a picture of the gorgeous scenery, film some of the funny moments they have with the group, or audio record important conversations they had and share these transformative experiences with their followers. But, stepping away from their smartphones encourages them to see the world through a different, unfiltered lens. 

How Does Wilderness Therapy Teach Offline Social Skills?

In the study mentioned above, both groups took pre- and post-tests that required participants to infer emotional states from photographs of facial expressions and videotaped scenes with verbal cues removed, relying on nonverbal communication. With time away from screens, teens were better at detecting the emotions of people in the photos and videos, as they had spent more time paying attention to the art of in-person conversation and face-to-face connection. When engaging in face-to-face communication, social information is conveyed by vocal and visual cues within the context of the situation. Online, teens only have a two-dimensional idea of other people’s intentions and emotions, especially as the people that they follow curate what they want to share with others publicly.

In wilderness therapy, social interactions are more natural and teens develop close relationships with their peers more quickly than they would online due to the amount of time they spend together, the teamwork that activities require, and the vulnerability of a group therapy setting. Groups quickly form a supportive community of staff and peers that they can rely on, which helps give socially withdrawn and tech-addicted kids evidence that they are not only capable of being successful in offline relationships, but that they actually just might enjoy it. 

blueFire Wilderness Can Help 

blueFire Wilderness Therapy is an adventure-based program for teens ages 11-17 who struggle with mental health issues, like ADHD, anxiety, depression,  and behavior issues. Wilderness therapy removes students from the distraction of peers, devices, and demands of life and allows them to heal in a supportive and nurturing environment. Clients will be able to focus on themselves and become more aware of their troubling behaviors. BlueFire gives them the skills and tools they need to combat these behaviors and be on their way to a happy and healthy life.

For more information about how evidence-based wilderness therapy helps improve social skills, call 1-844-413-1999. We can help your family today!

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