Building Emotional Intelligence in a Digital World: Part 1

Building Emotional Intelligence in a Digital World: Part 1


Have you ever heard of EQ? No, it’s not tech jargon or the latest Gen Z hashtag trend. It’s shorthand, just like IQ, for Emotional Intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence you say? Well, simply put, its defined as the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. And for anyone who’s spent time on social media, watching cable news, or reading YouTube comments sections lately, you’ll know that emotional intelligence feels like it’s in short supply in our digital world.

Having emotional intelligence is more than just a statistic or something to pass a test. Emotional intelligence is critical for so many important elements to living and thriving:

  • >> Self-awareness
  • >> Ability to think things through before reacting
  • >> Empathy for others 
  • >> Problem-solving skills
  • >> Ability to set boundaries and express feelings

These are skills we all desire and aspire to. In recent years, well-known authors like Brene Brown have highlighted many important elements of empathy, vulnerability, and awareness of our own emotions. Brown's research has shown that most people are only able to identify three emotions: bad, sad, glad. That may sound like it's a kid's answer but the fact is that as adults we often struggle to truly understand what we're feeling and why.

As parents, we likely want to see these elements of EQ growing in our kids’ lives. Yet it’s so important to understand that kids learn first from us. As parents, the journey toward expanding kids emotional intelligence begins with better developing our own EQ.

So get your thinking (and feeling) caps on! In this part 1 of Building Emotional Intelligence we'll talk about:

  1. Why emotional intelligence is important in an increasingly digital world
  2. Practical ways to work on improving your own emotional intelligence (EQ) skills


Emotional Intelligence in the Digital World

The digital world brings all sorts of challenges when it comes to emotional intelligence. 

Here’s an example: Have you ever completely misunderstood a text message? Maybe the sender meant to be sarcastic, and you missed the intent when reading it and assumed they were serious. Or maybe you were on a video call and felt more nervous or uncomfortable during the interaction than you would have in person.

These kinds of experiences are common in our screen-filled world, and now more than ever thanks to Covid. With texts or emails, even video calls, we often lack the context or nuances to help us tell if someone is being serious or joking, comfortable or anxious, engaged or distracted. In normal conversation, we generally understand these things due to non-verbal cues like tone of voice or facial expression, but when staring at a chat window, we lose those critical signals that help our brains calibrate the context for the correct response.

This is just one reason emojis have become so widely used (in addition to simply being fun!). In fact, some researchers believe being able to use emojis to convey context through text messages is now an essential facet of emotional intelligence. But emojis can only go so far. As human's we're hardwired to read people around us through the same kind of survival instincts that help us recognize danger or safety. It’s simply more murky and complicated digitally.

Now, imagine your child trying to sort through all that while staring at their phone. Kids learn quickly no doubt, but don’t be too quick to confuse tech savvy for actual emotional intelligence. Kids may know the background for what a particular emoji means today, but that doesn’t mean they understand how to read, translate, internalize, and process complicated emotions.

While your young child is working on building these proficiencies, it's important to be engaged and involved in the process. In many cases delaying or minimizing a child’s deep dive into the online world until they are older can be hugely beneficial. Regardless of the right timing and pathway for your family, being engaged as a parent or guardian along each step of the way is so important.


[[Learn how thoughtfully designed devices for families, like kids smartwatches and kids phones, can help parents navigate the digital age in our blog HERE]]


Early Learning Is Important for EQ

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health reports that a child’s social-emotional skills at age 5 may predict lifelong success, including the ability to obtain a college degree and attain a full-time job by age 25. Let that sink in for a moment.

As Dr. David Feldman writes in Psychology Today, "Whether we like it or not, our feelings affect our thinking and behavior. Being out of touch with these feelings just means we’re at the mercy of them."

Ultimately a child will learn their EQ skills from a wide variety of influences: teachers, friends, and even eventually online interactions. But by and large, the first and most important teacher of EQ that will a child will have is their parent(s) or guardian(s). By demonstrating good EQ skills, you can help your child learn to understand their own and others' emotions, as well as develop problem-solving skills and empathy.

As Brene Brown asks: "Are you the adult you want your child to grow up to be?"


A “Me First” Mentality: Building Our Own Emotional Intelligence

If you’re a little daunted by the long term impact of emotional intelligence for kids, here’s the good news. Research shows that EQ is a skill that we can all improve! Based on many “nature” as well as “nurture” factors, some may find that EQ comes more naturally than for others. But we’re all learners on this journey.

Along the way, researchers and developmental psychologists have identified several key "stepping stones" on the path toward greater EQ. While everyone's growth, as well as struggles, will look different, the below steps are a great starting point - like guideposts - to help all of us chart a path forward developing a better understanding of our selves. We have to start here before we can begin to build a greater EQ in our kids.



It's harder to be empathetic and understanding when you're exhausted and stressed - and parenting can be an exhausting job (say it again for the folks in the back!). It's important to find time for yourself, even if you're busy with work and caring for your child. We often say “find the time,” but when it comes to self care, a more helpful phrase might be “prioritize the practice.”

Try to set aside some consistent, dedicated time for yourself each week to relax, rest, and re-energize. Schedule a friend, family member, or babysitter to watch your child for a few hours so you can recharge. This will help you be a better parent, as well as display more EQ.


Work on connection

In our digital world, real-life connections are increasingly important, especially between children and parents. It’s hard to over-emphasize how important this is according to research on child development. And what gets in the way isn't just screens - it’s life! It can feel like a circus sometimes rushing from one activity to another as we juggle our busy family. But creating time for simple, intentional, fully-focused attention on your kids can truly change their lives, and yours too. Listen, give them eye contact, show them you’re there. As the inspiring digital and family activist Colin Kartchner said, “Showing your kids that you love them is 2% effort and 98% putting your phone down.



Before you can help your child handle their own emotions, you need to become aware of your own and learn to manage them as well. Some people find mindfulness exercises to be helpful, while others may keep a journal of their emotions each day. In many cases, simply developing a deeper, richer vocabulary of emotions is the most important step. For example, are you feeling sad, or is it actually a feeling of insecurity or being out of control? The Pixar movie Inside Out actually has some wonderful and profound insights here that can be fun to explore as adults and kids! (movie night anyone?)

So for starters, simply consider how you might do more to stop and really pinpoint your emotions in the moment, and then how your emotions affect your own behavior. Once you start on that journey, you'll probably realize there's room for growth (spoiler alert: there always is, and that’s great!).


Emotional Management

Along the path toward greater EQ, emotional management comes right after self awareness. It means thinking about how you regulate your own emotions (not always an easy task) so you can communicate how to do this to your child. It’s important to note that emotional management doesn’t mean stuffing your emotions inside. It’s acknowledging them, recognizing them, and building a practice of controlling them instead of being controlled. From meditation to counseling to simple breathing practices, there’s lots of ways to engage here. In fact, we often teach kids to count to 10 when they feel angry. It’s not a bad idea for parents either. 

As we get better and understanding and pinpointing our own emotions, we become more attuned to our own common triggers and challenges. That awareness and understanding does so much to help us then better manage our reactions.


Social awareness and Empathy

If you haven’t watched this short video on empathy, do yourself a favor now - it’s wonderful and so practical. As we become more aware and engaged with our own feelings we can then grow in empathy and understanding for others - including our our kids! Think about the non-verbal cues, like tone of voice or facial expression, that help you derive context from what people say to you. In a digital world, true empathy is harder than ever. Certainly on impersonal digital forums, but even in “real life” when we’re so often tied to our phones. If we can work to build greater social awareness and empathy, suddenly the people around us look less like obstacles or inconveniences and more like friends, neighbors, or even family. That’s a powerful lesson captured so beautifully by the beloved Mr. Rogers and one you too can pass on to your kids.


Helping Kids Build EQ: Next Week

Let's be clear: building emotional intelligence isn't something that happens overnight - for adults or kids. But as with so many things, simply being intentional with growth is so much of the journey.

In Part 2 next week we'll discuss emotional intelligence for kids in the digital age and simple but profound steps that parents and guardians can take to help kids build their EQ.