Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Alone with our Technology: Part Two

In Part One, I started to discuss how social networking can negatively impact our lives when it infringes on our ability to be alone. I’m continuing that thought here, but focusing on the two groups that are most active on Facebook: teenagers and young adults.

Erik Erikson studied Freudian psychoanalysis in the early 20th century, and even expanded Freud’s stages of development. Don’t use this as an excuse to dismiss his ideas just yet. So why am I telling you about an old psychoanalyst, and how does this apply to our topic of social networking? First of all, I find the history of modern psychology to be fascinating. Second, Erikson’s Fifth Age of Man is Identity vs. Role Confusion. This stage happens during the teenage years or in other words, prime social networking time. It’s referred to as a “moratorium,” or a time for “finding oneself.”

Erik Erikson
As more and more teens discover the power of technology, they’re losing out on their moratorium period. Turkle explains, “The idea of the moratorium does not easily mesh with a life that generates its own electronic shadow.” When every mistake and outburst is logged in a permanent record for the world to see and interact with, these adolescents are constantly “on.”

In 1950, long before free love, disco, or smart phones, Erikson wrote that teenagers are “primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are.” Facebook can be a place to test out certain facets of their personality, but the pressure to “like” the right bands and say the right thing in the eyes of their peers can be overwhelming.

When in doubt, "like" the cat pictures. Always a win.

An off comment in a conversation can quickly be forgotten, but when typed onto the glaring white screen of a user’s profile, there’s a tangible record of that moment to be copied and shared with others. Before we launch into a tirade about how easy teens have it these days and how much harder it was when we were kids, let’s just consider the social implications of an online presence in high school for a second. Think back to your most embarrassing teenage moment. Now imagine that video or picture being posted on Facebook or YouTube, to be viewed on-demand by everyone you know. Cyber-bullying aside, social networking can add a cruel twist to an awkward teen’s life. I imagine that "Star Wars Kid" wished he was a child of the 80's so he could've had this moment without over 25 million people viewing it:

Personally, I wish I had access to Google as a teen. I also wish I would’ve been guaranteed the privacy of a cell phone conversation without someone’s mom picking up the downstairs’ line, but I feel so lucky to have gone through my high school years without the stress of social networking. Before the world of Facebook and text messaging, teenagers could test boundaries and try on a variety of roles, but they also had more anonymity with their mistakes.

Another change continual technology offers is that teens never have to make a decision on their own. Even picking out a shirt can be a collaborative effort. A photo can be snapped on a cell phone and uploaded in seconds with the question “What do you think?” posed to hundreds of friends. Collaboration can be an excellent skill to have, but to allow others to influence every decision denies them the ability to grow in their own right. Turkle explains, “We used to equate growing up with the ability to function independently. These days always-on connection leads us to reconsider the virtues of a more collaborative self.” We don’t have to learn independence when the Internet makes it so easy to learn the preferences of others and glide seamlessly into that adolescent desire to fit in, to be indistinguishable from the cliquish herd of their peers.

Look at that intensity...

But how do young adults discover themselves when they’re logged in and under scrutiny? How can they learn to independently consider deeper decisions when a multitude of opinions is always available at their fingertips? We don’t have to think anymore, to make difficult decisions, to work out what we truly value, when we can allow the network to do it for us. It’s easy for us to stay in the mentality of the teenager, reaching out to others to validate our needs. But in order to become fully functional adults, we need time apart. We don’t get the chance to grow up when we live exclusively in relation to others.

As you might suspect, Erikson’s Fifth Age of Man is followed by the Sixth, defined as Intimacy vs. Isolation. This is the period we enter in our early 20’s. The goal of this time is to learn how to commit ourselves “to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments.” Should we fail to find the balance between intimate relationships and a comfortable level of solitude, “a fear of ego loss may lead to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption.” I imagine Erikson would be impressed by the variety of examples of self-absorption one can find on Facebook.

The debate continues to rage: does Facebook create narcissists or simply allow them to shine? I’m firmly in the camp that the apparent uptick in narcissistic tendencies is a sign of the times, and Facebook is just another venue for the self-absorbed to express themselves. When you grow up continually hearing that you’re special and never have to experience the pain of failure, it can’t really come as a surprise that you have some narcissistic tendencies. This, however, is another topic all to itself.

The argument that social networking and narcissism are related gained further ground after a Guardian article reported on a Western Illinois University study. According to the article, the study provided “some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most ‘toxic’ elements of narcissistic personality disorder.”

Researchers at Appalachian State University found that narcissistic users were no more likely to update their status than other users. Shawn Bergman, who led the study, reported to Discovery News that “There is a significant amount of psychological research that shows that one’s personality is fairly well-established by age 7,” so it is unlikely that social networking is the cause of the problem. However, the same article notes that narcissists do tend to have different motivations for updating their statuses. They want people to read about their lives because they think people are interested in them, and their profiles “tend to feature more self-promoting profile photos and first-person singular pronouns.” If nothing else, social networking does make narcissistic tendencies much easier to spot.

Conger, Cristin. "Don't Blame Facebook for the Narcissism Epidemic." Discovery News 04 Aug 2011. Web.

Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Print.

Pearse, Damien. "Facebook's 'Dark Side': Study Finds Link to Socially Aggressive Narcissism." The Guardian 17 Mar 2012. Web.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010. Digital.

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