Social media on the Internet are playing a much more important role in the development of teenagers’ identity than what we tend to think; and not only in the development of their group identity, but especially in the development of their individual identity, the one that differentiates them from others and that allows them to show themselves as unique and one of a kind.
Social media are not mere sites where one can meet other people and exchange with them or upload pictures. Social media are playing such a significant role as that of school in the development of teenagers’ identity. Teenagers’ identity is developed and defined in relation to other people. Constant comparisons and finding similarities and differences with others play an essential role. Teenagers would not even know whether they are tall or short if they could not compare themselves with their peers. They may not consider themselves witty or serious without comparison. And, of course, their degree of acceptance, integration and success in personal relationships will be determined within a group.
Up to now, up to beginning the 21st century, teenagers defined their identity mainly at school. School is where teenagers relate to each other, and where they embrace whether they are successful in their relationships or not. It is the place where teenagers discover whether they are shy, or leaders, or very witty, or “losers”. This is why labels and classifications at school have had such a demolishing impact on many children and teenagers. In many cases it takes those teenagers years to discover that they are not like they thought they were, o how their schoolmates had made them feel like. Because, if you are told thousands of times that you are this or that, you may end up believing it. Some of them, when they go to University, they discover that many of their good features had been blocked or covered by others, or that they simply had not been recognised. When children are classified and labelled in a certain way since a very young age, it may take them their whole life to overcome it. Changing school, starting high-school or going to University may represent a true change in a teenager’s life.
Through the Hotline on School Bullying (www.acosoescolar.info), we receive nearly everyday e-mails from children and teenagers who are going through hell at their schools; and very often their parents and teachers know nothing about it. Reading their e-mails we discover the very dramatic role their peers’ opinion may play in a teenager’s life. Not long ago we dealt with the case of a girl who was being crushed by two schoolmates who teased her and made fun of her every single day. They based all their mockery on the fact that she wore the same track suit as the previous year and it was too short now for her arms and legs. These girls had managed to involve other children in the mockery, who had also started calling her names and things such as “clown”, “ridiculous” and other insults. After a few weeks, other schoolmates who used to play with her stopped doing so, in order to avoid being picked on as friends of “the shabby one”. As a consequence of all this, she was not invited to a single birthday party throughout the whole school year. She started taking a book with her to the playground during recess already months ago because nobody wanted to play with her. And even if some children would have liked to play with her, nobody dared to do it, because they were afraid of the other children’s reactions. This went on for a year and a half, until her mother discovered that her daughter was going through a deep depression. And it all started because of a short track suit – one her mother could not replace because they didn’t have much money. A formal, humble girl, with good grades, who was very happy to go to school, developed a true phobia in just a year and a half. This term she has failed several exams on purpose to see if that way they will leave her alone…
Among the 1,400 cases we have dealt with during the last four years, there are many cases which are a lot harder than this one, and some of them are absolutely terrible. Breaking a child’s school books, physical aggressions, blackmailing or threats to a child’s smaller siblings… After analysing so many different situations, our conclusion is clear: IT IS NOT ADVISABLE to have school as the only place where a child can relate to others, explore his/her identity and discover who or what s/he is like in comparison to his peers. Children should have access to several circles, several environments, more than just one kind of situation where s/he can be who s/he is, without being classified or labelled for any small thing. Of course, I believe that most children finish school full of good memories and having developed many of their potentialities, with good friends and with an acceptable number of bad experiences, from which we also learn important things. But for other children and teenagers, a greater number than what we tend to believe, their school years are an agony. I do not intend to analyse and assess our current educational system, or the type of learning that comes out of it, the types of relationships it generates, etc. It is not the right place or the right time for that. But I do wish to state very clearly that children should relate to other children in several environments, not only at school.
And now the Internet comes into play. It is not the golden solution to all the ills and problems affecting society, education and human relationships (and those who believe so will soon be deceived). But it is true that the Internet is contributing a lot to the development of teenagers’ identity, and in many cases in a crucial fashion. Working with groups of teenagers one often hears comments such as: “in my profile’s wall I can write what I really think and what I really feel…”, “we talk about stuff we cannot talk about at school because other teenagers would laugh at us…”, “there are things I would never dare say face to face, but that I can say on the Internet…”, “I write a blog because I want other people to know who I truly am…”, “when someone clicks on “I like” on something I have written I feel great…”, and hundreds of other comments of the kind.
On the Internet teenagers show themselves as they are, they find a place where they can freely talk about their feelings and thoughts, they show features of their personality that are hidden to other people offline and, above all, they experiment with different possibilities, they test and try out different options. This, added to the number of hours a day they spend on the Internet, ends up having an important influence on the way they build their identity (and we will also talk about the risks this entails later on).
Do they show themselves as they truly are? Or as they would like to be?
The answer is not straightforward. In many cases they do not show themselves as they truly are or as they would like to be, but they search, experiment and test, even unconsciously. They do or say something in a certain way, and if it doesn’t work or if they do not get the reaction they expected they modify the way they do or say things. They learn. That is the way we all learn in many different situations throughout our lives: trial and error, and new trial. In fact those who think that each human being has a set nature are wrong. In most books published during the last years on self-help, psychology or applied neuroscience there is one clear message: we constantly change physically and psychologically throughout our life. None of the cells that form your current liver were there when you were born, and you do not think in the same way now than when you were 13, 25, or 35… Alas for those who do not change! Alas for those who continue acting, thinking or valuing things just as when they were 13 years old…
In order to give an answer to all the questions I’ve been asking here, the best thing I can do is offer another question as a response: And so what??? If some do not show themselves as they are yet, but as they would like to be, that is fantastic! In order to become something, the best thing to do is to want to become it, wish it and pretend it first. Not only psychologists, but also elite athletes’ trainers spend time and efforts “visualising” with their athletes what they wish to achieve, even before trying. You must believe what you wish to achieve so that those wishes may become a reality. If you do not believe you can jump higher, you will not be able to do it. If you want to become a physician, but you do not believe you will be able to complete your medical studies, you will never become a doctor. And even believing you will be able to do it you might not be able to do so – tolerating frustration can also be trained and developed with practice.
Furthermore, for those who wonder: Aren’t teenagers inventing their own personality? Aren’t they creating an image of themselves on the Internet that reflects what other people like? I would use again a question as my answer to these questions: Hasn’t this always been like that?? Is it something really new… or negative? Let’s see some practical examples: How does a child react when, after doing a prank, his/her parents laugh? The child ends up repeating the same action once and again! The child has probably done many other pranks before, which were not funny, but when s/he discovers this one pleases his/her parents, s/he will repeat it without end. If you tell a joke in a meeting and those present hardly show a polite smile… Will you tell that same joke again in another meeting with friends? I bet you won’t.
In order to discuss this topic in depth, we need to get rid of several prejudices first. Sometimes we tend to criticise situations that take place on the Internet, but which in fact work exactly like they do offline. We tend to think that teenagers, for example, invent their identity on the Internet. But it’s not that they are inventing it, it’s that they are creating it. And they do it in the very same way they did it before the Internet age. They use some features and hide other features, they experiment, test and try to find a way of feeling good about themselves; and at the same time they become members of their group of peers. They change, evolve, mature… That is the normal process, both online and offline. I remember someone I heard say that social media were only good for gossiping, seeing what other people do, showing off and talking about other people. Interestingly, I have recently read a study by the University of Oxford pointing out that in our everyday life – even those who do not use the Internet –, “we spend 65 % of our time talking about other people’s stuff and especially about their problems or misfortunes” (!!) This means that gossiping, observing others, evaluating and criticising what others do or what they don’t do are not specific to the social media on the Internet… They all existed long before. This behaviour is inherent to human beings, and it will be reproduced wherever human beings relate to other human beings; both offline and online. But, apart from that, it must be clearly understood that observing other people and searching for their acceptance or validation is not mere “gossiping” for teenagers. It is in fact a necessary and key part of the development process of their individual and group identities.
In the second part of this article we will analyse what teenagers are actually looking for when they become members of social media on the Internet and the reasons why they do it, as well as its positive and negative consequences.