As the weather turned and the snow melted, I watched the children get out on their bikes and play. It brought back memories of my childhood. We climbed trees, rode bikes and skateboards, and played make believe games outside. We were active, minds and bodies engaged with each other and the world around us. We formed friendships that can only arise from knowing another. We existed as children, as people.
This post has been some time coming. I have been watching our youth closely over the last few years and have been fascinated and disturbed with their intensity of use of smartphones. Recently, a friend told me that she had taken off the notifications from her social media accounts, and it was this that finally led me to write these thoughts.
It is no secret that tablets and smartphones, “Black Mirrors”, as John Duffy calls them, have captured and shaped the minds of those that use them in ways that I cannot fathom. The deluge of information that exists in the digital world has resulted in young people developing proficiencies to explore, find, analyze, and synthesize information into meaningful understandings. And we, as adults, tend not to recognize, much less acknowledge, what our young people can do. They are far more adept at seeing a world beyond their immediate surrounding and acting on such insight than I ever was at their age. They are engaged in social issues, they are creative, they have found ways to act that I as a young person never did. Yet this comes at a cost, a tremendous one.
Social media exists because it is profitable and it is the users of social media who the controllers of the technology ultimately profit from. They are not clients, they are not customers. They are users, users who are nurtured through psychological manipulation to keep returning to the platforms on which paid advertisements exist. And advertisements exist because they work. In essence, the media company is renting the users’ attention to the advertisers, just as newspapers have done and do. But it is the dynamic and instantaneous nature of social media that is the difference. It is the breadth of engagement, the different platforms, the seeking of gratification and/or affirmation (or lack thereof) and the anonymity that distinguishes the digital from the analogue world. I am writing this piece now and, as such, I am projecting an identity to you who read it, yet I could just as well go to a different platform, and paint a different picture of myself. And I could do so without anyone knowing who I really am deep down inside.
As someone who has an awareness of my own self worth, this might not be a problem. After all, I do take on different identities in everyday life: the husband, the parent, the teacher, the friend, the customer. And so, I am aware that when I engage with social media that I might be doing the same. Unfortunately, for many of our youth, when they do open social media accounts, they may not have such self worth and so much of their interaction occurs within a framework of self consciousness and of negative comparisons to others. We only need to look at all the image beautifying apps that exist and are used to see this. And they are juggling multiple identities with all the information that this brings at the same time, trying to make sense of what is there.
What we as adults need to keep in mind is that this is the world that children today were born in and that they haven’t known any different. This is their reality and while we may not appreciate it, we must accept it.
I recently sat with our adolescent daughter and asked her to run me through her Tik Tok account and was surprised to find out that she had two accounts. I didn’t ask her explicitly, but I did wonder whether who she presented on these separate accounts was the same persona, the same identity. This is a serious question as this the period in her life where she forms her personal and social identity. If the identities she is crafting online are different from the real self then, when she does switch off, whether it be because she is too tired to continue, or whether she has a curfew, or for any other reason, it is likely that some sort of dissonance will occur. It is this sort of noise that also gives rise to anxiety of questions of worth.
According to social identity theory, where we belong as people depends on the groups that we are a part of. In real life, as Jia Tolentino points out, such membership is visible, it is a physical activity and so we can hear others talk and see them act and thereby find out if, and how, we may “fit” in with them. Behind a screen, it is different. There are no “real” reference points, only the ones that are created, quite possibly, behind closed doors. And so we make comparisons within a manufactured framework. While those with an awareness of self may well engage in a downward social comparison online (comparing themselves to those less fortunate) the predominant pattern in social media is to promote “the good things” that others are living, whether these be true or not. And adolescents do not yet have the self-regulation to recognise or navigate this.
As part of the conversation with our daughter, she showed me some posts that had millions of views. I found them ludicrous, of no real value or interest at all, other than to recognize that the number of views was something that impacted on her. She saw the number of views, not the posts themselves, as an indicator of worth. And I asked myself, how does the number of views, or likes or comments that she has received affect her? How does she compare herself to those others who have been fortunate enough or clever enough to cultivate such quantitative prominence?
I wondered if, when she posts something, whether she goes back to see how many people have looked at it, or if she has notifications on to alert her that someone has given her post a thumbs up. And so, not only might she experience anxiety while online, while engaging in various posts backwards and forwards, while waiting for a reply, but also when she puts her phone down at night. How might she sleep if in the deep recesses of her mind she is preoccupied with waking up to assess how the numbers have changed or what someone has written? Not only is anxiety present when online, but also when offline. As teachers, we need to keep this in mind if we demand that our students leave their devices at the door.
I am not trying to paint all social media use as negative; we certainly have evidence that appropriate use can be beneficial. But there is ample research to say that, unless we are very aware of what we are engaging in, we run a very real risk of suffering. Adolescents, are still developing such awareness, and it is our role as carers to help them.
One strategy that many use is to try to actively and solely regulate adolescents’ use of social media, to take away phones, to snoop, to filter, and to tell them what they should and shouldn’t be doing. But young people don’t want to hear what we think. Even if we could, they don’t want us to tell us how to change how they are feeling. They already have so much information to deal with that all we are doing is adding more to confuse them. Furthermore, without our interference and our props they may well just tumble back down into the dark recesses of their digital world. We cannot simply take away their devices, which is their world, and leave an unfilled void.
What we need to do is to hear their voice. What I want to hear is our daughter’s voice. I am curious, I want to know, without judgement, how she navigates the complex world that she finds herself in. How does she feel when she comes inside from sledding down a hill to be greeted by a blank screen. What is going on inside her when an online group she is part of has left her out of a conversation? I want her to know that she can come to me whenever she needs or wants to. And the only way to do so is through promoting real interactions and real-life experiences.
Helping adolescents learn how to manage their use of the digital world takes time, weeks and months, and perhaps more. We need to appreciate their world by forging real relationships with them and this takes human interaction. By all means, we must talk with them about what they are experiencing online, and we can ask to follow them on their social media accounts, not to oversee, but to “see”. But if we consider that such activity may lead to addiction, we need to do more.
We must create opportunities for them to be with others and to experience the world beyond the digital context, and we need to do so while they are still developing their real life identities. Doubtless, there will be resistance, but caring requires us to meet and overcome this resistance. Caring takes work.
Such work can involve modeling the behavior we want to encourage. We can put our phones away when we are with others, at the dinner table, when we are out playing. We can establish designated “no screen times” and use these to engage in collective activities. We can encourage interaction by having common areas where we mingle and talk. We can ignore the buzz of the notification when we are busy, and explain that we will get to it when we are ready for it. The notification will stay, but the present moment will not. Whatever we do, we must direct their (and our) attention away from the screens into the world that exists beyond. Attention is the most valuable “commodity” we have, and it is also the one most in demand. And we must channel this attention while remembering that none of this is the children’s fault. It is not they who created the digital culture that exists. It is us.
We cannot and should not protect them from the complexity of their digital worlds because such worlds exist. Instead we need to help them to understand this, to manage their use and to identify as real human beings that live with other real human beings in a world beyond the screen. We need to give them the space to breathe and play. And by doing so, we may well once again find the child in ourselves.