A new view of young people seems to be gaining currency in Western popular culture. It portrays them as riding the crest of a wave of change - rushing into a dazzling, turbulent, high-tech future - while adults flounder in its wake.
For example, Douglas Rushkoff, in Playing the Future, suggests today’s kids are unfazed by the pace of change and the technologies that give adults anxiety attacks. These ‘screenagers’, as he calls them, are flexible and adaptable. They have learned to thrive on chaos, uncertainty and insecurity in ways their parents never have. Rushkoff likens this to an immigrant family: the children rapidly learn the language, customs and values of their adopted country, while their parents and grandparents struggle to make the transition.
This ‘postmodern’ perspective of young people also emerges from some recent surveys, and it is the image reflected in a lot of youth advertising. They are the first global generation: confident, optimistic, well-informed and educated, technologically sophisticated. They are self-reliant (even self-contained), street-wise, enterprising and creative, fast on their feet, keeping their options open.
In other words, they are attuned to the postmodern world: adapted to its transience, fragmentation, and pluralism; comfortable with its absence of absolutes and blurred distinctions between real and unreal; as at home in cyberspace as in physical space; equipped for its abundant opportunities, exciting choices and limitless freedoms - and its hazards and risks…
I wrote this in a paper published in the journal Futures in 1997. I was reminded of the portrait at a recent Canberra launch of the Cooperative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing. The tenor of the discussion about the effects of mass and social media seemed, at times at least, to reflect this upbeat view.
As I later told panel members in an email, that young people may appear to be adapting to new technologies and social conditions does not mean we need not be concerned, as the mental health data make clear. That they do not distinguish between their online and real lives does not necessarily make it okay.
The discussion focused on the pros and cons of social media like Facebook, especially with respect to relationships and neurological development, but these are only parts of a much larger, more complex picture of the effects of the mass and social media on many aspects of health and wellbeing. As a broad generalisation, I said, the benefits of new technologies are direct, specific and immediate (which is why they are introduced); the costs, in contrast, are often indirect, diffuse and delayed.
In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Youth Studies, I note that, while their impacts remain debated, the mass and social media are among the most distinctive features of modern times: powerful and ubiquitous, employing stunning technologies, dominating young people’s leisure time. For all their value in entertainment, education and work, they are also powerful vehicles for adverse influences on both mental and physical health, including the encouragement and promotion of: poor diet, alcohol abuse, aggression and bullying, poor body image, sedentary lifestyles, loss of sleep, cognitive impairment, reduced social cohesion, social isolation, the sexualisation of childhood, negative images of society and the future, invidious social comparisons, and extrinsic goals and expectations based on financial success, social status, looks and lifestyles.
I argue in the Futures paper that there are other ways of portraying young people’s response to their times. A second view is more conventional, but still largely positive. This ‘modern’ portrait suggests most young people successfully negotiate the transitions of adolescence to become well-adjusted adults. Most cherish their families, enjoy life and are confident they’ll get what they want out of it - a job they like, travel, a partner and eventually a family of their own. Yes, more these days may be turning to crime, abusing drugs, suffering depression or eating disorders , even taking their own lives, but they are a small minority (on which the media tend to focus) - victims, so it is said, of their personal situation and circumstances. A different spin on this perspective is that, down through the ages, adults have fretted about youth, seeing them as an issue or a problem, and nothing much has changed.
Then there is a third perspective. This ‘transformational’ portrait (so called because of the social transformation it suggests is required) reveals young people as cynical, alienated, pessimistic and disengaged. Many are confused and angry, uncertain of what the future holds and what society expects of them. While they may continue to work within ‘the system’, they no longer believe in it, or are willing to serve it. From this perspective, the suicidal, the depressed, the drug-addicted and the delinquent represent the tip of an iceberg of psychological pain and distress that includes a substantial proportion, perhaps even a majority, of young people today.
Rushkoff is now less positive about the wired world, mainly because of its commercialisation, and has made some insightful observations about its effects on shaping identity. I’d also now update my ‘transformational’ portrait to stress that its features are largely hidden from public view beneath the images of the other two portraits: outwardly ‘normal’, happy lives disguise worryingly high levels of emotional stress and disorder.
While these portraits can be seen as competing, it is not so much a question of which is right but, rather, of what each reveals about young people today. If we are to understand their world, we have to appreciate this complexity; we have to go beneath the surface of their individual lives and lifestyles and grapple with the deeper dynamics of social and technological change and its effects on our health and wellbeing.
Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and a director of Australia 21, a non-profit research company. His articles are available at: www.richardeckersley.com.au.
Eckersley, R. 1997, Portraits of youth - understanding young people’s relationship with the future. Futures, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 243-249.
Eckersley, R. 2011. A new narrative of young people’s health and wellbeing. Journal of Youth Studies, vol 14, no. 5, pp. 627-638.