I am who I say I am! (Maybe not)
It seems everyone has a view on the pluses and minuses of social media. Many recent articles call out these positive and negative traits with flair and precision. One of my favorites is an article entitled, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? by Stephen Marche in The Atlantic Magazine.
He writes: "It's the great paradox of our age. Americans now live in a web of connection in which we can reach everyone we know in just a fraction of a second. Yet, for all this connectivity, we have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier."
That may be true, but that's not what bothers me. What keeps me up at night is another fact of online life, which Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, describes this way. She says that Facebook and Twitter give us the power to "present the self we want to be," carefully tailoring our status updates and retouching photos of ourselves. Or worse: creating identities that aren't real at all.
The Insanity Effect
For all its power and promise, social media has the potential to behave like a proverbial Siren Song, calling us away from the safety of our true selves and onto the "rocks" of loss and confusion. By "safety" I am referring to the fact that our identities -- those unique characteristics that make us who we are -- are inviolate and ever-present. They are safe havens we can count on during the stormiest of times.
By fabricating identities online, people unwittingly pull themselves away from their core, stretching the band of credibility, sometimes to the breaking point. Taken too far, a kind of insanity sets in -- a gradual detachment from your true self that leaves you ungrounded and vulnerable to shocks of reality, whether they be in finding and holding people you can count on as genuine friends (not the Facebook kind), or finding and holding a job. It's a slippery slope. What starts out as fun, morphs into fantasy, which may no longer be tethered to reality. And then what?
I know, I sound like an alarmist. I'm not. Over the past couple of years, I've had the opportunity to bring my identity work into the world of young people -- teens, whose formative selves are already fragile. (We all know this; we were once one of them.)
Erik said so
According to Erik Erikson, one of the pre-eminent psychologists of the 20th century, having an identity -- knowing who you are -- gives adolescents a sense of control that allows them to navigate through the rest of life. Without identities, awkward adolescents carry a "How am I doing?" attitude that is always focused on their concern about the impression they are making on others. Without identities, Erikson states, they will be, or do, whatever they think others want.
Not a recipe for success. Thus, my concern: Social media invites teens, in particular, to invent identities that can make growing up doubly difficult: Judgment suffers in a public way, and choices aren't necessarily the best ones.
Of course, this can happen to anyone, whether you're 16 or 60. That said, I'd like to believe that we, of the older persuasion, have a keener, more robust sense of ourselves than our younger counterparts.
The sky is not falling
This is not a Chicken Little moment. Social media-induced disaster isn't imminent.
What might help make the social media landscape less rocky, especially for teenagers, is encouraging them to discover who they are on their own, even as they test the waters "out there" and interact with their peers.
I have a vision: a social media world, where knowing who you are for real, and using that knowledge as a lens, is the gateway for selecting (or de-selecting) "friends." Maybe sites like Facebook will see the benefits of this idea and create an identity screening option to add a bit of gravitas (and exclusivity) to the friending process. This notion is especially important now, as Facebook considers offering its site to a much younger audience.
Until that happens, it's up to us to bring our true selves into the social media experience. When it comes to helping our children -- teens and even pre-teens -- develop and assert strong identities, there are steps we can take that will make a meaningful difference.
Check out the Read More column below for some helpful
how-to tips and share your own ideas on my blog at
See you online!