Peer orientation, discussed in part three, is augmented by technology as a threat to healthy adolescent development. The things that are needed for successful maturation, namely space, boredom and genuine connection, are easily undermined by technology. The defence against this threat lies with you, the adult, staying in an active role.
If parents let go of their child prematurely, a developmental tragedy plays out as the adolescent falls into the grip of peers, technology or a combined attachment to both. Traditional cultures provided what humans needed to navigate adolescence: interactions with relatives living close together (an attachment village); religious customs; ideology; mentors; elders; rituals based around nature; occupations; defined social roles and more. Without these factors in our society, it is more important than ever that the adult steps in to guide the adolescent.
In contrast to the traditional role of culture, modern digital culture is a mere palliative for those going through change. The digital world offers temporary, short-lived relief from the pain of separation by triggering the brain’s attachment reward system and releasing feel-good chemicals. Used to fill the void, social media, video games and pornography offer the adolescent a world devoid of real defeat or rejection. But in being depersonalised and dehumanising, these stimulants bypass the real-life experiences necessary for healthy development.
Like peer connections, digital connections shut the adolescent down emotionally. This can create the illusion of strength and independence. It can also reduce the pressure on the adult who can start to believe that their parenting work is done and enjoy new freedoms as their child does their own thing. But the adolescent needs adult guidance as much as ever.
The digital world offers short cuts to relieve boredom, enabling young people to immerse themselves in worlds of fantasy where there is no danger that their pain will be known to others. The chemical release in the brain means they feel safe, but it is really only a short-lived respite, that will soon need to be topped up. In the process, healthy development is suppressed or strangulated.
The phrases social media and online community are oxymorons for adolescents. True attachments are made in person, through the senses, where significance, belonging and loyalty can all be nurtured. All of these qualities are absent in digital connections. Corporations use the human longing for attachment to advertise digital products that push young people away from profound fulfilment and development. Images of happy people connecting to each other dominate technology ads, and for a good reason: superficial digital contact between people is a goldmine for corporations precisely because it does not work. Their insatiable customers must keep returning for more because their need is never satisfied.
The changes that have taken place with peer and digital orientation invading the space previously held by adults are stark. From admiring and imitating, adolescents now tend to mock; from loving, they now loathe. It has also worsened social ills ranging from depression to self-harm to suicide. Boredom is not something people seek, but it is an ally in the maturation process, allowing the authentic person to begin to emerge from the fog of adolescence. This emergence requires a degree of teenage awkwardness, the digital world offers a way to bypass this process.
Pay attention for a few days, once this lockdown is over, to the snippets of conversation you hear in the street; you will notice that chat between two pre-teens (pre-mobile) is usually more intelligent and considered than that of people in their 20s, 30s or 40s. The reason is the infantilising effect of technology, specifically the constant availability of superficial gratification and distraction via mobile technology which has made contemplation a fringe activity in our culture.
Pre-mobile phone, pre-games console primary school children emerge with curiosity. But with unlimited access to digital sources, curiosity is dying out. Abundant quick fixes mean we can do a search to back up our pre-existing ideas and beliefs, with algorithms and overwhelming amounts of meaningless information reinforcing this cycle. Ready-made, socially acceptable personal identities based on the narrow parameters of what digital platforms allow do not necessarily support healthy development. The individual must emerge in her own sweet time, but digital orientation has intensified the pressures of peer orientation with adolescents particularly vulnerable to experiencing the isolation and alienation of this unsupportive culture.
Digital culture is not governed by the customs and taboos that protect healthy attachments and direct the adolescent to where they can be nurtured. The result is unhealthy fixations, with the average teenager sending thousands of texts every month and spending several hours a day on social media. Combined with family time being in freefall across western societies, there is less and less encouragement for children and parents to spend quality time together, a developmental disaster.
I recently witnessed a 14 year-old in genuine panic when her phone ran out of battery and she couldn’t find the charger – maintaining her peer relationships did not allow for this gap in contact and she did not enjoy strong, comforting attachments to the adults in her life. From the epitome of cool to existential shrieking, demanding to know where her mother had put the charger, she exists in the extremes of peer and digital orientation, her true self lost in the middle somewhere, without the time, space and nurturing required to emerge.
As discussed in the previous articles, for adolescents to emerge as viable, healthy adults, certain conditions are needed. Space is crucial, but this does not mean being left entirely alone. Adults need to hold the space, playing the role of governor and gatekeeper of the solitude and experimentation that allow the real adult to develop out of the raw adolescent.
For the adolescent attached to social media, there is not enough space for the individual and no motive for the authentic self to emerge. Social media is dominated by deterrents to emergence. Other adolescents online cannot invite a youth to emerge, lost as they are in groupthink and the pursuit of acceptance. Virtue signalling dominates, sometimes in the form of cruelty to others. The desire to impress means that the adolescent cannot truly be known. If the authentic, vulnerable human self begins to present itself online, it is likely to be shot down by peers or faceless haters. The peer pressure means internalising and stifling one’s own needs, pure loneliness masquerading as fitting in.
If an adolescent is hooked on digital stimulation in this way, it is a sign that his attachment needs have not been met in the right place at the right time by the right people. Here, the adult needs to step in again and reclaim their territory. If the teenager’s life lacks approval, closeness and warmth, the digital world is a problem waiting to happen. If his life is filled with approval, closeness and warmth, technology will be cleverly utilised by the adolescent to develop their skills and knowledge, instead of a short-lived attachment fix.
How does this latter eventuality manifest? According to Dr Gordon Neufeld, three things need to happen:
- The adolescent needs to be in the process of developing their own ideas before they have access to digital technology
- The adolescent needs to experience the developmental stage of futility, instead of bypassing it using technology
- Loss and defeat are necessary developmental experiences. Without them, the adolescent will need to dominate others, leading them deeper into the pit of peer and digital orientations where this bullying can be expressed cheaply.
These positive, albeit painful, experiences mean that the adolescent can be free of the need for peer approval and be boosted with the confidence and fulfilment of their safe relationships with adults.
And what does an adult capable of facilitating a healthy, attuned attachment relationship with an adolescent look like? They believe in their own power as an adult and the role they must fulfil; they are comfortable with their teenage child being dependent on them even as their peers orientate to other teenagers with apparent confidence; they will enact rules and rituals that protect the attachment from outside harm, pointing the youth to the things that stay the same and reminding them of their next period of quality time together.
A confident adult will collect before they direct the young person and be prepared to pull rank to remind the child they are in a secure hierarchy. The adult will be confident that the adolescent will invite them to be a part of their lives, a key player in their development because the adult has cultivated a safe, caring relationship based on unconditional positive regard. None of this is available in the digital world.
A smart adult attachment figure will refrain from inviting the enemy onto their territory. Sleep overs with the school friends they’ve already seen all week and unfettered social media are developmental junk food unable to satisfy the adolescent. True nourishment comes from a profoundly beautiful adult-adolescent relationship. Everything else can follow.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
This is part four of a series on adolescence based on the teachings of developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld,
You can read parts one, two and three here.