A Science-Based Look at the Digitally Native Teen

By: Dr. Richard Graham

Today we face an unprecedented challenge when it comes to parenting and guiding young adults. Young people today live a great deal of their lives in the new and ‘virtual neighborhoods’ of the online world. They access the online world through smartphones and tablets, using apps and social media to express themselves, watch videos, share and generally enjoy themselves, recognizing that any likely future will involve their well-honed digital skills and experience.

While a great deal of what we know about human development remains the same in the digital world,, its very newness means that both young people and their parents must learn fast. Young people are immersing themselves in digital culture to keep up with the latest developments and trends, and this can leave a parent feeling excluded and anxious about the impact this is having on their child.

What is the psychological attraction of many of these new social networks today, particular those with anonymous features? What role do they play for today’s digitally native young person, and how do we as parents and caregivers best guide them to maximize the benefits and minimize risks? This article will look to answer these questions and more.

First, if we are to understand why social media and anonymous sites are so popular and important to young people we need to understand their time of life, and their experience of growing up in the digital world. This includes consideration of the following:

  1. The physical changes that happen to a young person during puberty.
  2. The psychological growth and adjustments to puberty that we call adolescence.
  3. What young people tell us about growing up online and why they value private and anonymous spaces.
  4. How we can think about some of the risks, and why they want to learn from them to build resilience.
  5. What you can do as a parent or carer.

The Transformations of Puberty

Human physical development involves periods of slow growth, and phases of rapid development, such as in early infancy. Yet even more remarkable than infancy are the changes of puberty, in which almost every system in the body, including the brain, undergo changes that transform the child’s body into that of an adult, capable of reproduction, as well as greater strength, perseverance and compassion.

Puberty in humans is almost unique in the animal kingdom and occurs while still functioning in the external world – there is no chrysalis to protect a young person during these physical changes. As many of us probably remember, the changes are often disturbing for the young person and their families and take some adjusting to. Experts now recognize that the risk-taking behavior and variable judgement of early adolescence coincides with a shift in brain functioning, as the judgement centers in the forebrain are temporarily redeveloped and function less well. As the development of the brain continues during the teen years, better judgement and empathy will grow.

Psychological Growth and Adolescence

This period that we call adolescence is characterized by rapid change in several areas:

  • Psychological development: this is often rooted in the urge to develop an independent identity which can lead to the challenging of the status quo, as young people form their own values.
  • Cognitive development: there is enormous growth in teens’ capacity to think in abstract terms, which allows for greater understanding and reasoning.
  • Emotional development: often occurs through intense volatile moods, and a major task of adolescence is to master emotions or desires, and through empathy grasp the impact of these emotions on others.
  • Social development: the shifting of intense emotional attachments from family to friends initially, and later boyfriends or girlfriends, involves an exploration of all types of relationships.

So, the main developmental tasks to be achieved during adolescence are:

  • Independence from parents and other adults;
  • Development of a realistic, stable and positive self-identity;
  • Formation of a stable sexual identity;
  • Formation and negotiation of peer and intimate relationships;
  • Development of realistic body image;
  • Formulation of their own moral/value system;
  • Acquisition of skills for future financial independence;

Emotionally, these developments coincide with the growth of personality and an awareness of being a separate and individual person, different from a child who is part of a family. This feeling of separateness and difference is often associated with a sense of isolation, and a drive to understand the experiences of others and spend time in their company. A young person strives to find their place in the world, and build relationships and skills in many areas. This is only achieved through experience, a great deal of practice, and the support of parents who remember their own adolescence, and can understand the mistakes that can be made. They can also help the young person understand what a good friend is, and how to respond to those that treat you less well.

The Downside of Growing Up Online

Before the online world, young people worked through the tasks of adolescence in their local communities, whether a city or rural village, and within their friendship groups, learning from each other but also challenging each other in their progress to adulthood. Fearful that a lack of experience (especially sexual experience) would be exposed, or awkward mistakes and misunderstandings become an item of gossip, many of these tasks would also be worked through privately, and certainly away from the eyes of adults.

Online interactions mirror many of these same dynamics on a public stage. Today’s culture continues to emphasize the idea that certain online spaces are only for presenting one’s positive side for all to see.

As Evan Spiegel, CEO of the popular app Snapchat, put it in a keynote speech from earlier this year:

‘(the)… traditional social media view of identity is actually quite radical: you are the sum of your published experience. Otherwise known as: “pics or it didn’t happen.” Or in the case of Instagram: beautiful pics or it didn’t happen AND you’re not cool.’

The pressures to present a positive, beautiful profile of yourself does have a downside for today’s adolescents. Where do you go to post something angry or sad, when you are having a bad day? The sites where young people do feel free to express more difficult feelings means that certain sites can become a concentration of the more difficult challenging issues, while others appear to have a far more positive culture. Yet the sites that allow for the difficult issues to be freely expressed are the ones that are growing among younger demographics, and the expression of difficult feelings does not necessarily mean someone will act upon them.

A further issue for young people, especially as they approach college applications, is that they are very concerned about the trace they leave when online; this is usually referred to as the digital footprint. They will know that future employers may examine their social media profiles, and the level of skill needed to maintain a solely positive profile can be quite draining. In the excellent survey on anonymity for the Internet Governance Forum in October 2013, conducted by Childnet International, one young person offered the following perspective:

Because I don’t want everything I say online to be documented and searchable for the rest of my life. I might change my mind, phrase things differently later etc. If I don’t speak anonymously, I feel like I need to make extremely careful statements–like a politician speaking with a journalist. This is exhausting and I don’t want to feel so restricted.”

The Role of Anonymity in a Digital World

If one revisits the tasks of adolescence – such as struggling to self-manage or understanding your feelings towards others – it is little wonder that young people are drawn to the opportunities for privacy that anonymity affords them. This may be so until they feel they have found their ‘voice’, their values, their sense of their identity; then it may then feel more possible to be more certain and public about such things. Some will have more courage and confidence to do this earlier, but all will value private space to work through these issues. The young person quoted above makes reference to an ordinary process such as changing your mind on an issue. The seemingly inescapable digital footprints of today are stifling to teens looking to explore a point of view without being forever labelled. As all of us will remember, some of the views we held strongly as adolescents could be quite embarrassing if made public in our later years.

But recording or logging the journey through the tasks of adolescence is but one concern for young people; the feeling that you are identifiable and are being watched is another. A different young adult, with some wit, captured this experience:

“I simply don’t want to have my name associated with everything I do. Much in the same way that I don’t want my name hovering over my head in luminous letters when I buy groceries or walk down the street”

Of course one way to minimize these risks is to stay offline, though at the cost of considerable isolation, and missing the positive experiences, as another young person powerfully reminds us:

“teenagers are still trying to figure out who they want to be and being anonymous on the Internet is a great way to try different social roles safely”

The opportunity to explore different ideas and feelings allows for a much greater growth of the personality, and the possibility of a positive self-image, especially when in touch with those who feel similarly..

It is also important to recognize that the online world massively increases the young person’s access to information, and through that, exposure to how other people think. While books and other offline media such as television, films and music have also offered windows into new perspectives, young people now have access to such vast amounts of user generated content that is raw and unfiltered, they can gain much deeper understanding of different opinions in a much quicker timeframe. The option of anonymity has played a key role here; for example, young people have always gravitated to services like Yahoo! Answers as they believe anonymity and the ‘question and answer’ format will help others express their true views. This Q&A format also does something else: it reduces the gap between ourselves and others, allowing for a sense of belonging and being similar, which facilitates empathy, one of the most important tasks of adolescence.

Grappling with Adolescence Online: Risk and Resilience

We know, at least from the time of the philosopher Plato, that when people think they are invisible and anonymous, they can act upon their most basic drives and impulses. That can both manifest as positive and negative. But there are other factors that can override that ‘internal brake-pedal’ of our conscience. As mentioned earlier, the early brain changes of puberty can affect the capacity for empathy.. Secondly, the influence of group and crowd behavior can have a huge impact upon young people, as can the values of the culture they live in and the culture of the particular site or app they are engaging with. The difficulty –and the irony – is the very factors that can give young people such a feeling of freedom and relief when online are the very same ones that create the challenges.

We learn during adolescence not just how to better control our feelings, but also how to see the impact of our behavior on others. One challenge of the online world is that it is not always possible to see the impact of a difficult comment on another person, as we cannot see their expression, their possible distress, or even their tears, and this can make it harder for someone to know if they have gone too far. It’s easy to see how the online world, and anonymous platforms in particular, can become a place where someone goes too far, and offloads personal stresses based on outside pressures. This is a difficult balance for the platform provider, but one that must be struck – it is important for digitally native teens to be able to test boundaries while still remaining within the boundaries of respecting others.

There are other challenges. As young people also want to build their strength and grit during adolescence, which can help them deal with difficult issues or comments, they will also learn to challenge each other. At times they will compete and attack each other, almost as sport, and it is little wonder that they show such interest in the dramatic portrayal of this process in films such as ’The Hunger Games’ where they literally fight for their lives.

Adolescents can also feel very disturbed by vulnerability they perceive in another adolescent, especially if it is associated with a mental health problem or their sexuality. Rooted in fears about their own identity, what might be vulnerable about them, and of being at the bottom of the ‘food chain’ themselves, they may try to drive out and exclude someone who reminds them of their own vulnerability. This is quite a different matter from trying to cause distress and upset, even if it still occurs as a consequence.

The Challenge of Identifying Bullying

The ‘always connected’ smartphones that many young people are almost glued to allows for the instant expression of feelings, when stressed, angry or upset electronic acts of insensitivity are also different from those that set out to cause upset. It is key to the concept of bullying that the bully has some intention to cause distress. Online insensitivity, through a lack of understanding, being impulsive, or even being used to aggression is not necessarily bullying, though it may appear to the same.

Most young people have a degree of resilience that enables them navigate many if not all social challenges online. However few of us could manage a repeated, relentless, focused and intentional attack from either an individual or a group, and establishing boundaries in such cases can be very helpful. But there is much still to learn about how to best protect those that are vulnerable to this, as each episode of bullying is a complex world and tragedy of its own. For these situations of repeated harm, the term bullying or cyberbullying will be correct, even though the nature of it is always complicated, and seldom about a bully just enjoying cruel satisfactions from their actions. Typically, they too have been the victim of similar targeted behaviors earlier in life.

There are also new and emerging challenges when it bullying in the online world. In a small number of cases, a young person may harm themselves in response to what appears to have been a very unpleasant episode of bullying. It then emerges that almost all of the messages were sent by the same young person, to themselves. According to research from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, 10 percent of young people send such messages to themselves, and it is even more common in boys, with 17 percent self-messaging.

There appear to be many reasons for a young person to do this, and although they may feel very ashamed that they have such messages to themselves, gaining the support of friends or adults appears to be one very important motive for such self-messaging. Simply blocking access to a site, and thus their route to getting help, may therefore cause unexpected distress. This is an emerging area of knowledge, and one to take extremely seriously, especially if you consider the self-messaging to be a very serious call for help.

What You Can Do

While the journey through adolescence has never been easy, it is hard not to feel compassion for today’s young people and their struggles to grow in a world that is new to all of us. In that way, we can only join them in trying to understand the challenges, as if you were moving to a new country where the language and customs seem so different to what you have known and valued. A young person has to find a balance between the older values of their parents, and the ones that fit with the world they now live in, and this is work that all young people are currently engaged in. And it is complicated.

So what can you do?

  1. Show interest and learn about the digital life of your child as early as possible, so if difficulties arise later, they know you understand the good and the bad.
  2. Talk about friendship, and what a good friendship is, along with other values that you cherish.
  3. Think about, and even talk about your own experience of your teenage years – you might find yourself understanding all too well the pressures on young people and the need for enough privacy to express yourself.
  4. Respect their need to find their own answers, to build grit and resilience, but be ready to step in if it gets too much.
  5. Be alert to changes in behavior – becoming withdrawn or quiet might be a sign that something has gone too far online, though it may well be that it is someone else that they are concerned about.

Ask if they are okay, and that you are there to talk with them when they are ready.

  1. Check if they would feel more comfortable talking to someone else, either in the family, or a good friend – they may feel embarrassed about some of their online interactions.
  2. Learn about their school or college’s anti-bullying policy, and who you can turn to if worried.
  3. If more concerned about your child’s increasing distress or deepening depression, talk about how you have turned to others in your life for support, and ask if they would value seeing someone outside of the family or school who could help them feel better.
  4. Usually slow, measured and steady responses reassure young people, and stop a young person from feeling everything is out of their control, which causes further anxiety. Sudden closure of accounts or blocking internet access has a downside.
  5. Consider when they are talking about online difficulties, they are also wanting to spend more time with you, so that you too can put away the smartphone.

In summary, be ready to recognize that a worrying situation is complicated, and there may be no easy or fast solution to it. That will help the conversations that lead to the right support, and a response a young person feels comfortable with.

Dr. Richard Graham

Dr. Richard Graham is a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist and recent Clinical Director of the Adolescent Directorate of the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust, one of the UK’s foremost clinical services for young people with mental health difficulties. For the last decade his work has centered on the impact of digital technology on Continue Reading...