Yesterday I spent the entire day, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., listening to teenagers relate to each other. “Relate” is certainly the wrong word choice. Something was awry with the interactions, which although innocent enough, lacked any contact besides non-stop insubstantial and banal twitters tossed into the air, which no one seemed to notice, catch, or care to throw back. By evening, I realized that the majority of statements coming from each child could easily be categorized as a verbal status update of the type seen on Facebook.
In trying to stop the constant chatter among the students I teach, I ask them to take a moment to consider if what they are about to say would interest them if said to them by someone else. This is a frightening assignment, since many of us (myself included) often indulge in a kind of narcissistic reverie where we verbalize what is going on inside our heads with little attention paid to whoever is in our midst. By the time we wake up and say “enough about me…” it’s really too late for the other to believe we are truly interested in listening.
Teenagers have always had a strong need to be in continuous communication. It’s a lonely time of life — confusing, isolating and frightening. When I was young, I would spend hours on the phone. As I write this, I can hear the voices of my parents screaming nightly, “Get off the phone!” The difference between communicating via the telephone and the internet is the phone requires a response; not so the internet.
There are dozens of social media sites that perpetually produce disengaged asinine statements into virtual cyber “reality” without the author caring one iota what the result, feedback and consequences might be. Much of what is presented on the internet is an indulgence of the ramblings of our individual psyches and the creating of an image of ourselves in an imitation of the culture of celebrity. This is not limited to, but is very obviously pronounced in the profiles, statements and pictures posted by teenagers on the internet.
Profiles can be a wild-west of smokescreens and lies where a middle-aged predator can present himself as the most handsome popular boy in high school, a 12-year-old inexperienced girl can post provocative pictures of herself creating a fantasy world of imagined fame and wealth. On the internet we can be whoever it is we wish to be, say whatever it is we want to say and act however we want with terrifyingly few consequences. It is even possible to bully someone, assassinate their character, tell their secrets or inspire them to commit suicide.
Many teens are reluctant to tell an authority figure about instances of cyber-bullying, which has led to fatal outcomes. At least three children between the ages of 12 and 13 have committed suicide due to depression brought on by cyber-bullying.
There is a new trend beginning on the internet, which started in Japan but has spread to several other countries including the United States; primarily teenagers and young adults find strangers with whom they share a social pathology and then create an internet suicide pact in full view of the public via cyber-space. Thankfully these are still rare and extreme examples of the dangers of the internet.
What is not extreme or rare is the manner in which social sites are creating a culture of narcissism and deception that can keep real self-knowledge among the young at a distance while feeding the medusa of ego and competition. The grandiose presenting of an image of oneself, plus the lack of real relating that occurs on social sites, prevents young people from communicating truth and being vulnerable and real with each other in person.
I have taught modern dance to children from the 1980’s to the present. The duration of my tenure with each teenaged group of students covers ten to 12 years. Each is a different generation. Although the teenage angst of each group has been similar, the current group of students is the first to have grown up on the internet.
In addition to teaching dance, I have always taught a philosophy based on the practice of paying attention, concepts about art and life skills. Each philosophy session is followed by a discussion. In the past, before the internet, the discussions were lively and often filled with emotional expression that required risk and trust. Now each request for feedback is met with an uncomfortable disquieting silence.
Although I have met a lot of talented, truly nice teenagers who are functioning well in school, I am still worried about them. Disclosure, vulnerability, connecting, being seen and seeing one another, the give and take of serious conversation, and the expression of emotions are what comprise intimacy. Intimacy is food for the soul. Without it we are left to survive alone in an increasingly materialistic world made smaller and smaller by the internet, which allows us to connect instantly to everything while experiencing next to nothing. The only antidote to this, I believe, is to continue to talk to them, to model being real and especially to do what my parents did. Tell them to turn off the computer. It might help if we also turned off our computers and talked to the people in our families the old-fashioned way, too.