It’s never been easy being a teenager, has it?
We all have our own bittersweet memories of those years ourselves, and high on the list of challenges was this nagging question of … Who am I?
Educators and psychologists call the troubled years “adolescence.” Singer Pat Boone once wrote a book simply calling them, “twixt twelve and twenty.” Teens and parents alike often just call them frustrating.
In the Social Media Age, that era this blog calls the Virtual Unknown, teens may have an even tougher time developing an individual identity that is reflective of who they actually are.
After all, actuality and virtuality are not exactly the same thing, and the latest studies show the average teen spends 31 hours per week online, according to www.cybersentinel.co.uk
Adding in some additional time for cell phone texting, and you could say the average teen has a full-time job of living and interacting in a virtual world.
That’s about 50 percent of a kid’s waking week spent in a world where they and other teens can say pretty much anything they like on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., without having to worry about any immediate non-verbal reaction from the person they are saying it about.
That releases all kinds of inhibitions and bypasses a lot of internal censors normally in place when an individual is interacting with others in a face-to-face setting.
My own years in teaching online college classes have proven that to be true. Students released from their perceptions of how other facial expressions in the room are evaluating them, feel a lot freer to jump in and shoot from the lip.
Sadly, as all of us who ever wished to un-strike the “send” key know, talking before thinking is not always such a great thing.
The recent cases of teen suicide resulting from embarrassing, personal, social-media disclosures made about them shows the extreme tragic reaction that can occur when that happens. When the embarrassing parts of a teen’s identity – imagined or real – is cybercast without permission, humiliation is on the doorstep.
Teens, who are just in the midst of forming those identities, are the most vulnerable to these thoughtless disclosures which strike with the full force of barbarians at the gate. In my pre-Web adolescence, I remember that kind of embarrassment resulting from a public puncturing of my own identity.
I had waited for my 13th birthday to show that I was not a child any longer, and that I was now a teenager who – I reasoned – was almost an adult. My father, acting totally out of love, gave my name to the host of a local afternoon kid’s show (when TV stations still spent money on producing programs themselves) called, “Crusader Rabbit.”
A sad birthday boy
My name was read by the adorned man/rabbit as one of the “birthday boys” of that day. I saw it and was devastated. How could I face my “grown-up” seventh-grade classmates the next day at school? I was in junior high, for God’s sake; no longer a kid. Dad was simply seeing me as his little boy, as all parents do for quite some time with their kids, and failed to catch the nuance that was in neon lights for me.
When teens are neck-deep in the struggle to figure out who they are, and today someone who may not even know them decides to pop something onto Twitter without giving it a second thought, it doesn’t help. The kid can’t even console himself, as I did with my dad, that it was an innocent mistake made out of love and not a mean spirit.
Another problem with teen identity that has arisen with the social media is it’s easy to fake who you are to others who don’t know you well, or who may not know you at all. It doesn’t take long for a teen to figure out he/she can present an ideal self (that person who you think you’d like to be) to others in the virtual world. In fact, barring any face-to-face meetings or “corrections” posted by others who know you are lying, you can actually run with that presumed identity for some time.
This, of course, isn’t limited to kids. Adults on dating sites engage a lot in this promulgation of ideal selves as opposed to real selves. It would make an interesting study if some researcher decided to study just how much this process occurs. So the Web and its social media can become a kind of escape or netherworld where a teenager can be – for awhile and with some people – who they want to be.
The problem is we can’t go for long assuming that both the actual and virtual worlds – and the identities we have created in each – are real.
Social scientists and communication scholars study something they call “cognitive dissonance,” which basically says humans cannot live for long being in dissonance with themselves. We can’t go on convincing ourselves that two opposites are both true, or that someone we love and respect is right about a point, yet the point itself is wrong.
The only thing that helps us live in dissonance for a time is denial. And denial doesn’t do much to help us realize our true identity.
It’s a rough world
So anytime we parents think we had it rougher growing up than our kids do, we might think again. At least we didn’t have to grapple with a mean-spirited and/or thoughtless Twitter or Facebook post exploding our fragile attempts at protecting a very vulnerable identity in formation.