Ask any parent what they want for their kids (and recently I have been doing a lot of this) and they will reply with the same answers that parents have probably given ever since being a parent was a thing: happiness, self esteem, fulfillment. Dig deeper with your interrogation (as is my wont to do) and there are more specific answers – largely still consistent: ability to plan, set goals, make real friends, have empathy.
Go even deeper and ask parents what they think gets in the way of their child’s progress toward these objectives, and almost to the parent the first response is the phone. Not the phone with a cord attached to the wall that takes calls from neighbors, relatives and friends. The phone that is a supercomputer; the link to social media, video games, and an immediate answer to any knowledge based question you may have. Is the phone the devil? And do we let our kids have it because we are all a little bit bad?
I have heard the arguments in defense of the phone. Our kids are sailing into a digital ocean and will need to learn to navigate with these tools sooner or later. The school issues them a device, what more harm could the phone do? It is really helpful for our family – we both work. My personal favorite though – and maybe yours too – all of their friends have phones; it is a losing battle.
Why is the phone an artifice of the devil that we, paradoxically, allow our children to holster on their hips every day? My thinking on this changed today after a conversation with an old mentor from my salad days as an Outward Bound instructor.
Butch, one of my dearest mentors, has remained in the field of adolescent development as a front lines practitioner and leader of outdoor youth programs for more than 40 years. Today Butch shared with me his interpretation of what’s going on with adolescents at this moment in time and how it is significantly different from anything that has happened since World War 2. By the end of our conversation I was convinced that there is hope for our phone toting kids. Below, I share my interpretation of some of Butch’s insights.
There are some pretty scary things beginning to happen to the digital tribe. Obesity and depression are on the rise and highly associated with screen time. Self esteem takes a beating at the hands of social media – Instagram, in particular. Social media and games, in particular, act like a vortex that sucks in the adolescent brain like heroin does. Yeah, all that, but one of the scarier developments may be the increase in narcissism.
In recent decades, the incidence of DSM V categorical narcissism has steadily increased. Peter Gray, Boston College professor of psychology and author of the article linked above, suggests several possible contributing factors to this troubling trend. Among them are the self esteem movement – everybody gets a trophy, an overemphasis on achievement and competition (perhaps resulting from the diminishing middle class – not Gray’s theory), and the punchline for Gray – a decline in play.
Play has been studied by more than just Gray because it turns out that play for both adolescents and young children is how they develop a healthy sense of self complete with the ability to plan, set goals, make real friends, and… you guessed it… have empathy.
Phones are killing play, then? It’s Instagram (and Finstagram) and the damn video games, right? Not quite.
Adolescent Psych 101
Butch took me back to my graduate developmental psychology classes, and so I will take you back there too. It all starts with this rude interruption into an otherwise peaceful human existence – adolescence. New hormones begin entering the bloodstream, and the brain undergoes a pretty significant reconfiguring of the neocortex we have started calling neuronal shedding. These very physical changes have an impact on the thoughts, feelings, and by extension the behavior of the ten to twenty year old.
This new psychophysiological landscape presents the adolescent with some interesting new dynamics. The world, formerly all concrete and largely in the present moment for the pre-adolescent mind, extends beyond the present with new abstract thinking. The self is now a thing that has awareness and can be projected to other people; and that projection can be changed at will. The authorities in your life are no longer omnipotent. In fact, the adolescent himself (I hate making the pronoun choice every time I write – forgive me) experiences feelings of omnipotence, invulnerability, and uniqueness. And, totally on time and developmentally on target, he expresses narcissistic tendencies.
The narcissism of adolescence is a natural intermediate conclusion of the emerging aware self that has yet to figure out that just because he is aware that other people see him and are looking at him this does not mean he is the only thing they are looking at. Over time this resolves itself – in normal times.
Play on the Brink
These are not normal times. Play is threatened; at least the kind of play that moves the adolescent through his identity crisis. Adolescent play is different than child’s play. It is more serious, it is more industrious, looks more like real work, lasts longer, and is frequently higher risk. Pickup basketball, theater productions, part time jobs, volunteer projects, robotics team work, the school mural project, and outdoor adventure courses are the play of the adolescent. Less of this important work is happening because these tasks are undervalued. They are undervalued by both the digital native and his parents.
The race to nowhere created by the overemphasis on academic achievement is one of the thieves of adolescent play. The other thief is stealthier. The other thief makes us believe that more play is happening, not less. The other thief is social media.
The adolescent, in his search for identity, is in a slow process of moving out of the house – figuratively, of course. He seeks a new tribe, a place to redefine himself as other than his parents. He does this with a series of approximations. He approximates being a jock, maybe even a P.E. teacher who coaches after school. In a healthy scenario, he might try this on by being trained and then volunteering as a referee for youth sports. He approximates being an entrepreneur. He might do this by joining the Future Business Leaders of America club, starting a microbusiness designing and selling t-shirts, and selling his wares through an amazon storefront with his aunt’s help.
These are examples of tribal explorations that have the inherent authenticity to allow for failure, rejection, even humiliation. There is real risk, and genuine reward that is not dependent upon success. The experience itself – the play – is the reward, although it might at times taste like broccoli. The play reflects the narcissists true projection back to himself, and he is not always in love with it. He sees the ugly shadow and adjusts his future self projection accordingly. It is a beautiful iterative process of putting together the adult self, and ideally climbing Maslow’s pyramid toward self actualization.
The Digital Tribe
Not all adolescent play takes the form of steps up Maslow’s pyramid. Imagine instead, that our adolescent walks out the front door of the house in his search for a new tribe, and instead of seeking the challenge of play that looks like real work, he heads over to a friend’s house to play table tennis. After a few games, interrupted frequently by checking texts from friends, he takes a picture of himself posed in a slam position and then posts it immediately to social media. The alerts start pouring in. A few comments suggest that his written description was too harsh on his friend, so he edits the text a bit. More buzzes and bings come in. The dopamine is hitting twice as hard now because the game itself was pretty fun, but getting virtual attention for the picture feels even better.
There is nothing inherently wrong with an adolescent playing table tennis, nor is there anything wrong with sharing a picture with others. Both are harmless pursuits in and of themselves. It is the false idolization cultivated through social media that causes problems. Our adolescent friend’s emotional brain thinks it is finding tribe, but the play that is work in this case is neither challenging nor genuinely rewarding – but it feels that way! There was risk in posting the picture and there was certainly reward. So, the next time our friend has the option to train to be a youth sports referee or play table tennis and post pictures of himself doing it, he is likely to choose the latter. He is building a false tribe that will almost always smile and clap at his every action – or pretend action. He is nurturing, not challenging, his narcissistic disposition.
Leveraging Social Media for Good
I thought Butch was going in the direction of starting a petition to increase the age requirement for the use of social media. There is a growing chorus in many communities seeking to ban smartphones through middle school, after all. Quite to the contrary, his story outlined how social media can be used to facilitate the work that helps adolescents find the tribes that help them resolve their identity crisis.
There are some who believe that the internet is becoming a virtual representation of our collective unconscious. As such, it becomes more and more compelling all the time. Technological advancement only goes in one direction. The internet is here to stay and will only become more integral to our lives over time. What if instead of rejecting or delaying the integration of the social aspects of web life for our adolescent friends, we resolve to help them integrate the use of this powerful technology into their rapidly shifting emotional lives?
What if instead of posts of posed hero shots, we trained our young friends to fully document and seek deep feedback on projects that matter to them? For example, a young woman takes a trip to Bolivia to work on a youth group service project rebuilding a damaged school. Everyone on the trip has mobiles with an international plan, but instead of pausing every five minutes to post a picture of herself holding a shovel or hugging the local children, she takes a few pictures during the day to document the full experience – not just herself in it – and then writes a blog post explaining what she did and why. Then, she shares the link to the blog post on social media and invites others – including trusted adults – to share stories about their construction adventures.
No, adolescents do not frequently arrive at this type of solution to their narcissistic impulses on their own. That’s why we, the adults in their lives, are here. It is our job to challenge and push. It is our job to explain and expose. It is our job to help them set limits for themselves. And it is our job to talk them through the experiences they are having so they can expose their shadows and find their way to adulthood.
All of their friends have phones, the school issues them a connected device, and it is so helpful for us to be able to reach them whenever we want. It may be a losing battle to keep our teens away from the social internet, but perhaps we can still help them develop the ability to plan, set goals, make real friends, and have empathy. Maybe it just requires a proactive approach, and it might help if a romantic interest of theirs is already signed up for that service trip to Bolivia.
Butch Greer, Youth Programs Developer and Leader
Lynn West, Family and Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (and my wife)