Mental Health

Online Rejection, How to Help

Delaney Ruston, MD
January 27, 2020
Girl using phone

Recently I was speaking with a few hundred high schoolers in their school theater, and I started out asking what things they enjoy doing related to screen time. They had such fun throwing out all types of examples. I shared some things I love to do, such as Googling to find answers to almost any question, like recently, when I asked what to do with leftover coffee and learned I could use it to make oatmeal, who knew? As we all talked about the upsides of our tech revolution, we joked about how long a documentary would be if it included all the upsides. Some students offered 4 hours, and some said 24 hours.

I always start conversations with groups of students by asking them about positive things they experience with their screen time because I want them to know that I understand there are so many wonderful things to do on tech. Teens expect that any adult talking with them about screen time is going to focus solely on the negative. Once students see that I appreciate the many upsides of our tech world, then they are more open to talking about ways to minimize the downsides.  

When I asked the students what some of the things that happen on screens that negatively affects them, a student quickly raised her hand and answered:

"Being blocked." She looked a bit self-conscious, so I quickly said, "Yes, teen after teen tells me about this. It's just so common." I was relieved to see her perk right up.

I went on to say, "It is so stressful when someone is blocked or unfriended, often they have no idea why they were blocked. I know how hard the not-knowing is. It is hard to feel rejected, and then on top of that, not to understand why it happened makes it that much more upsetting."

Then, another student raised her hand, "Yeah, I hate it when I can see that someone has opened my Snap to them, but they have not responded to me."

I said, "These types of things can leave us feeling a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt. This can lead to going over and over things in one’s mind, trying to find a reason."

So many heads nodded as I said these things.

There are many ways a person in life can experience rejection, and of course, many of these ways are now online. Here are some such examples:

  1. When someone sends out invites to play an online video game, and you don't get an invite.
  2. You are being blocked. Someone can block you from Instagram or Snapchat. So when you go to look at the person's feed, it would have a message like "there is no content."
  3. You get ghosted when someone stops suddenly responding to your messages without explanation, often in texts or other types of messages on other platforms.
  4. You receive a Snapchat, text, or Instagram, and someone breaks up with you. Often people even do this with a few words like "I think we should just be friends."
  5. You get unfollowed on Instagram or Snapchat. You would only know if you go to look at your followers and find that a person isn't following you anymore. You wouldn't get a notification.
  6. You are left unopened on Snapchat, which is when you send a Snap to someone, and they don't open it. You can tell on your end that they have not opened it. This action is also called leaving it unread.
  7. You see that someone posted pictures from a gathering that you were not invited to. Often this is on Instagram or a Snapchat story.
  8. You are left off a group text with people who would typically include you.
  9. You see many of your friends are somewhere, i.e., a party or an outing, on SnapMaps, and you did not get invited.

Here are some ways I have found helpful in talking with my teens about dealing with feelings of rejection.

  1. Quickly recognize the feelings that come up for you, as their parent, when your child shares the fact they were rejected (you might feel anger, sadness, or other emotions). Try not to let your feelings flow out. Instead, realize that when we let our emotions tumble out, it can lead kids or teens to regret that they opened up to us. Instead, try to get to a place of calm and think about focusing your energy on really hearing what they are saying. Let them know you are happy that they told you about the experience of rejection.
  2. If this rejection happened online – say on a video game such as not being asked to join a group game, or on social media – try not to say negative statements about the platform where it occurred. Many youth fear telling adults about what is happening online because they worry that their game or device will be taken away.
  3. Validate that it makes sense that they are as upset as they are – feeling rejected is one of the hardest emotions we experience. Then stop. Try not to attempt to fix it right away with things like, "Oh, I am sure it was a mistake," or " Well, you never liked that person anyway." Instead, right when they tell you, try to stay in validation mode for a while. It is incredibly comforting for youth to feel understood at that moment. In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, Psychologist Laura Kastner says, "If there is one skill I would teach parents, it's validation."
  4. Try modeling being able to talk about these feelings by sharing times when you got rejected. Share the things you felt that you did well, not so well, and what you learned. What is great about such sharing is that teens may open up to you in ways they would otherwise not have.
  5. In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, I talk to a dad (who happens to be a school counselor) about whether he ever shares how his day went emotionally with his kids. He replied,
  6. "I don't think so. You mean like just kind of saying how I'm feeling about something other than being angry with them for not doing something? I can't think of a lot of examples of checking in emotionally and letting them know what's going on."
  7. If your teen is not feeling really upset, you might suggest trying what I call a "Perspective  Plunge." Have them imagine ways the other person could be seeing things that would explain their act of rejection. Consider doing a role-play where they become that other person and talk about why they did what they did. Perhaps as they do this, they realize the person is not responding because they are overwhelmed with stuff happening in their life. Or, they may get insight into how the person is experiencing hurt, and their coping skill is to block or unfollow.
  8. Wanting to know why one gets rejected is human nature. It takes a lot of courage for anyone to ask a person why they have done some act of rejection. So, not asking is often the norm for many kids and teens (and us adults as well, of course). Talk about ways one can try to talk with the person to learn why they blocked them. Even if they decide not to, having a conversation about what one could do is a great teaching moment.
  9. Ideas you could suggest include starting from a place of questioning, not accusing. You never know, maybe there was a mistake and the person didn't realize you weren't on the group chat. Another skill is using "I" statements. So, for example, saying to the person, "I feel pretty upset, can we talk about what is going on" as opposed to something like, "Hey, what you did the other day is not ok."
  10. Is there anything your child felt they did or said to the person who rejected them that they now wish they hadn't? I love the phrase "Wise Remorse" (from the mindfulness teacher Joseph Goldstein) to describe the idea of becoming mindful of something you did that you now regret. What did you learn from that experience? Might you want to tell the person that you are feeling remorse?  

Here are a few questions to get the conversation started with youth in your life about this topic of online rejection:

  1. When do you feel good about being included in things online?
  2. In what ways have you experienced rejection related to screen time?
  3. How often do you not know why you got rejected?
  4. When have you approached someone to try to understand what is going on? Did you do that in person or online, and how did those times go?

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January 27, 2020


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