Amy, 16, is crying in her therapist’s office. She has just been defriended by one of the most popular girls at her school. Not only that but it is likely only a matter of…minutes before everyone – friends and non friends – find out that she is a loser.
Tom’s new restaurant has been up and running a month. Business seems to be going good and all the customers he talks to seem to like the food, but he’s a nervous wreck. He’s checking Yelp, as well as some local websites everyday to see customer reviews. He knows that if he starts stacking up a few negative ones, it could quickly be all over.
Both Amy’s and Tom’s angst are now old news, standard issue in the 21st century digitalized/ social-socialized culture. While there has been much written about the positive ways technology has opened the global society and created community and connections where there were none before, there is like most things a downside – the stories of cyber bullying readily come to mind, or folks like Tom who live in fear of just one or two off-base crackpot comments spilled out into the cyber universe that can do damage over which he has little to no control.
Philosophers tell us that we’ve now gone beyond post modernism with it’s everything-is-relevant-nothing-is-solid state of mind, its ironic self-awareness, it’s self centeredness. Alan Kirby has called this post-post modernism, pseudo-modernism, and it is different in a very fundamental way. Post modernism, modernism, romanticism focused on the author. The individual created the self. No more, he says. Now the recipient becomes partial or complete author of us – think all those that call in to vote for The Voice or American Idol where their votes determine more so than the judges who is good and bad. Think Yelp. If you believe Kirby is right, and I do, we are making a huge psychological shift where others, rather than ourselves, are shaping our identity – a self by consensus.
But, you say, this is nothing new. People, particularly in small towns, have always been labeled and defined by the community – the reputation of the upstanding banker, the honest grocer, the town drunk, the town slut. But at that time people could always pull up stakes, move away, and literally start all over. No longer. Now wherever you go, there you are – your online history, dogging you forever.
And unlike small towns, it’s not people who know you well or wellish who make these judgments, but strangers, potentially thousands of them – and their judgments and evaluations are constant, potentially ruthless, and micro-analyzed. That’s why Tom has reason to fear ( the salad seemed warm; the waiter seemed standoffish from some random truck driver who drifted in for a hurried lunch and will never have the opportunity to come back?) and checks his ratings constantly, and why Amy feels like she is socially free-falling into high-school hell where soon students she has never seen will be texting bad news about her sock choices. The masters are simply too many. There is little chance of redemption.
The U.S. is, according to World Health Organization, at #2 in depression at 20% with France one point ahead, in contrast to many 3rd world countries where rates are in the low single digits. Anti-depressants for depression (and anxiety) are the #1 prescribed medications in the country – we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised or surprised if they increase.
But the real concern is over the impact of such a culture on our children and teens. Like the first 2 years of life, there is pruning of brain neurons in the adolescent years – keeping what is most used, whittling out the rest. If children and teens get wired to pay attention to the judgment of others rather than one’s own family values and individual beliefs, what will be the result? Can teens who are already sturggling to find their center have a shot at doing so given the relentless push and pull they feel?
What to do? We need to begin to move away from a culture of identification -- where we focus on being on recognized and approved by others -- towards a culture of integrity – where our external behaviors represent our internal values and beliefs. How? Some steps:
Take time to define yourself. Integrity begins with figuring out what is important about you – what is your purpose, your values, what it is that you are here to do. Think about, work on creating a clear image before marching into the fray.
Step away. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the techno lifestyle: Constantly checking cell phones, twittering constantly, checking to see what your Yelp reviews are, how many friends you have on Face Book, how many hits on your blog. This will make you reactive and put you on the hamster wheel. Others are running you. Stop. Deep breaths. Take a sabbatical. Get centered. Go cold turkey – no checking anything with on/off button. You might get the shakes the first couple of times, but it will get easier.
Periodically check with you. Stepping away is important but you also need to upgrade you. Plan to take time to self-evaluate (rather than other-evaluate) who you are. What is most important to you right now? What are your current passions and sense of purpose? What makes you, you? What are your greatest talents and gifts that define who you are? Take time to reflect on these and nail them down before you step back in the fray.
Support your children and teens. If you are wired for the hamster wheel, so will your kids. You won’t notice how much they are caught up or devastated by the hammering they can get. Start with you but then pay attention to them. It starts with limits. No texting 24/7, family nights, limited time on computer. Are they going to complain, say you are unfair, that every other parent in the world doesn’t do this? Sure. Too bad.
But more importantly it is about talking about your worry and intentions, you helping to define their strengths and character repeatedly, encouraging them to stay true to themselves and heavily supporting them when they do, despite tremendous peer pressure.
Tough to do? Absolutely – you both are battling thousands – but believe it or not, you carry the most weight.
Let you define you. You’re too precious to farm out to anyone else.