The scary reality of a teen’s search for identity in a world of socials, selfies and fake news

One of the fundamental biological drivers of adolescence is the search for identity. And let’s be honest that is a search that many of us grown-ups are still trying to work out!

I have become increasingly concerned for today’s digital natives, especially those under 18. How can they truly discover themselves in amongst the noise, the 24/7 negative news cycles, the insidious pressure from idealised and often sexualised images and videos, the plastic search for notoriety and fame – at any cost? How can they do this amidst the selfies, the filters and the unquenchable thirst for endless connectivity, regardless of whether it is positive, negative, painful or destructive. On top of that our kids who have phones are being marinated in age-inappropriate content from violent videos, endless gaming that involves killing, the dark side of social media and disgusting pornography, often stumbled on accidentally. What a depressing background for raising our kids to have a healthy sense of self with good character.

As a former high school English teacher, it was a priority within the curriculum to teach my students critical literacy, which is the capacity to question the authenticity of texts. This helped to encourage our emerging adults to not believe everything they read, to explore the art of a good argument and to research for themselves highly topical, often controversial issues so that at some point they could find a conviction or a belief that felt comfortable. In reality this took most of the high school curriculum right through to year 12. Critical literacy builds an authentic sense of self and a personal voice.

Drowning out the sound of our own voices

In the pre-digital classroom, well before Wikipedia and Google, students had to research the old-fashioned way with careful research often in the library and also through meaningful conversations with mature elders such as parents, teachers or community members.

Fake news abounds on the web and even well-educated adults can struggle to find authentic, evidence-based information. Consider the impact of fake news in the last American presidential election and also around the COVID-19 pandemic. Without an understanding or capacity to critically question information, we can be led to believe anything and that has created a massive industry for spammers, sexual predators and unscrupulous advertisers.

This week I watched the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ by Jeff Orlowski and it heightened my concerns for our precious children and teenagers. The most disquieting thing was hearing in the documentary from the very people behind the invisible manipulation of information. These are the same people who created the apps and networks that invade our privacy by gathering personal data. We see that this hunger to monetise almost every single app and website is, on so many levels, eroding human decency and society.

We have become lab rats within the largest social experiment known to humankind.

These people found their conscience eventually and walked away to become whistleblowers. Not one of them allows any of their children to have a phone such is their concern about the damage and psychological distortion social media can have on children!

Given that another primary biological driver of adolescence is the need to belong, particularly with their peers and friends, the digital world definitely has a valuable place in the lives of families – especially in neighbourhoods, schools and communities. A global pandemic has shown how important staying connected digitally can be. Indeed my 65th birthday this year was a Zoom party that included all my family who were scattered across Australia while we were in isolation in our home.

However, reports are now coming in of an increase in children’s stress and anxiety, cyber-bullying, sexually predatory behaviour, fraud, more spammers and more concerned parents reaching out to mental health professionals because their tween/teen child has become a shadow of their former self or has begun to intentionally self-harm.

The negative side of the digital world is causing our children, especially our teenagers, immeasurable damage. The sickos who deliberately manipulate content online to steal our kids’ innocence, to deliberately traumatise them and to steal their identity to cause pain later in their lives, seem to delight in being the worst version of humanity possible. A recent example is the video of a suicide in real-time that was shared on TikTok. Later it was found on many other apps and was even found embedded on YouTube into a seemingly harmless cat video! Appallingly there is almost no accountability for these platforms and that makes me feel sick to my stomach given I have six precious grandchildren whose childhoods are going to be immersed in school environments where technology is the preferred pathway of learning.

It has been nine years since I read ID–The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century by Professor Susan Greenfield in which she cautioned the world about the impacts of digital technology on the developing child’s brain.

Her early concerns were that with much of the digital world being focused on fun and insidious reward systems built into many apps and platforms this kept the brain from having significant pauses for time to really process thoughts and ideas.

Indeed, the research is very strong that the human brain is much better at focusing on one thing at a time even though we are subtly conditioned to believe we can do many things at once and have many windows open on our computers. Switch tasking, where we go from one task to another and back to the previous task is of course possible digitally, however it diminishes our capacity to be as effective as we are when completing one task at a time. Given that most of our teens will be doing homework while getting regular updates from WhatsApp, TikTok and Snapchat, is it any wonder that our educational standards are dropping? They are biologically wired for connectedness with their peers and friends, more than they are focused on deep pondering or schoolwork.

The social experiment & social anxiety

One of the downsides of the digital world has been the increase in social anxiety for many teens and their lack of confidence in verbal communication, quite simply because they do less of it.

Given that adolescence can be a time of struggling confidence, increased stress and often an increase in the influence of the negative inner voice, then disappearing down the rabbit hole of the digital world to find ways to trigger dopamine – the feel-good neurotransmitter – makes perfect sense. Of course, that means sharing endless highly filtered images on Insta, gaming, scrolling through looking at celebrities’ and bloggers’ posts.

Sadly, none of those activities are thought to genuinely build the positive neurochemistry in the teen brain that allows them to find their own unique voice and sense of self. Of course, there are exceptions and those teens who have discovered a love of the arts, particularly music, can find some like-minded souls to share this passion with across the global divide. AI has created options where music-loving teens can play alongside their favourite bands and that is a healthy way to make positive neurotransmitters, especially if they keep the headphones on!

However too often mindless online activity feeds into a teen’s fragile need to be accepted and validated, often by making choices that deep down inside the core of their human spirit, they disagree with.

How do we shape our sense of authentic identity?

In basic psychology there is an understanding that we have three layers to our personality. One layer is our ego mind where endless chatter invades our brain randomly – it is our inner critic. Then we all have a shadow where some of our darkest emotions are contained. At the centre of who we are is an inner compass, the core of a decent human that I often call the human spirit. When we are able to access this quiet voice of wisdom and self-compassion, we have the best opportunity to becoming our best self.

Professor Greenfield explains that around 50% of who we really are, does come in on our DNA and I’m one of the lucky ones because my dad had a capacity to be a fabulous humanitarian who won an exhibition in English in his final-year exams that I’m sure came in on the DNA!

We are all shaped by the experiences that we have from birth to adolescence. The music we listen to, the holidays we had, the books we read, the deep conversations we had with interesting grown-ups, the failures we have experienced, the illnesses and the play opportunities we had as children.

Statistically today’s children are more passive and play less in the outside world – something I am constantly advocating that we need to change. If we are spending hours and hours in the digital world, we are spending much less time interacting with the real world in real-time and that is one of Professor Greenfield’s biggest concerns – it is changing our children’s brain architecture. Consider that there is now a significant number of children who play the same apps over and over, rather than reading books. Their neural pathways will be very different from children who’ve been big readers.

Children who have had a wide variety of books read to them will tend to develop a wider multifaceted understanding of things in the outside world and a deeper, unique sense of self. Essentially the more connections that we create in our brains in childhood, the greater our capacity for understanding more complex things later in life. It is like a basic building block.

Another concern of children who spend unhealthy amounts of time on technology, is that they are often navigating a world in which there are limited options because of the directory system that is prevalent online.

If we want to encourage our children to be independent thinkers, problem solvers and highly creative humans, they need to be practising freedom and autonomy as often as possible within their childhoods – not spending hours in a highly orchestrated environment that is shaping the way they think and experience life.

When parents offer their children genuine opportunities to contribute to conversations, to family decisions and to be problem solvers in their own right, they can make a huge difference to the growth and development of their child’s authentic sense of self. Even if their point of view is radically different to yours, allowing them to explain why they believe what they do, without judgement, can help them in their search for their own voice.

Every human being ever born is a one-off, unique being. They have a one-off blend of strengths, challenges, potentials and possibilities and so discovering who we really are, rather than who we have been shaped to become, is the pursuit of ‘who am I’?

A normal consequence of our Western education system is that children learn to write ‘safely’, to give the teacher what they are asking for to ensure they get the grades that will keep their parents happy. By the time they get to high school, most students will give very similar responses to a creative writing topic because they no longer trust their own voice.

In my endeavours to reconnect students to their authentic sense of self, I was very grateful for Edward De Bono and his Plus/Minus/Interesting (PMI) and Other People’s View (OPV) thinking strategies. These really helped my students to change their habitual thinking patterns. The OPV strategy was a game changer for so many students. It was a great opportunity to build empathy and understanding, especially during a time when teen brains are undergoing such massive changes.

Another thing that helped students genuinely discover how they felt about something, was to give them a few days to ponder on it. Thinking deeply over time has become more difficult for today’s digitally connected children and teens. For our mind to truly come to understand some of the complex realities of life, we actually need to ponder deeply rather than ask Siri or Dr Google. Time for pondering is disappearing out of our children’s lives and we must put it back. Remember we are human beings, rather than human doings.

In my last years of teaching I began to weave mindfulness activities as well as thinking and memory strategies into my classrooms. What I discovered was that a calm mind can be a much more effective platform from which to explore interesting topics, form convictions, express oneself and genuinely feel safer within oneself. I used calming visualisations to help students see themselves as they really wanted to be. Every single student was running a video in their mind of who they thought they were in that mindset that had been created earlier in their life. My audio visualisations like My Best Report Ever, Accepting Myself and Dare to Dream were all created in my classrooms.

If elite athletes were using visualisations to help them be more successful, then I wanted my students to be able to free themselves from negative thought processes and perceptions, and to imagine themselves being happy, confident and capable instead of the opposite.

I share Professor Greenfield’s concern that in our digital world it is harder for our kids to become unique, authentic individuals rather than ‘anybodies’ or ‘nobodies’ who are unknowingly conforming to norms created by their digital influences.

The ego is feasting on the selfie/social media/fake news world while the higher self quietly starves.

We must choose to step forward and nurture and feed our adolescents’ inner world and model ways of living that are respectful, honest, compassionate, fair and kind. To support you to do this I am gifting my ebook Chill’nSkills (download that here) to share with your teens whether in your home, classroom or community. We must remind them they are so much more than an ego.