It’s obsessive: young people forever phoning, texting, phoning, texting; forever on Facebook or other social networking sites; forever caught up in the consequences of who said what to whom, who stabbed who in the back, who’s going out with whom….
Like any powerful obsession, this manic activity protects against something equally powerful: in this case, the fear of being alone. It’s a fear that haunts young people, a constant sub-text in their behaviour and conversations. Any young person conspicuously on his own is quickly spotted and labelled because his aloneness is disconcerting for everyone else: it’s too much of a reminder. Groups will attack the aloneness they see in others to make it go away while adults will threaten and punish young people with aloneness – isolating them, sending them to their rooms, taking away their phones – because adults sense how much the prospect of aloneness disturbs and frightens young people. The anxiety is primitive. A baby learns that it exists only by seeing itself reflected in the face looking down. Take away the face and it’s as if the baby no longer exists.
At some level, young people remember this experience and dread it. Ironically, boys persist in calling each other Wanker! Jerk-off! Tosser! while leading full masturbatory lives of their own. For them, it’s not the masturbation that’s so shameful. It’s the aloneness of masturbation: that’s what they scorn and ridicule and attack. A virtual or fantasy relationship with someone – anyone - goes some way to easing the pain of aloneness. Acknowledging that pain is shameful. Our cultural assumption is that the person conspicuously on his own (the loner, weirdo, freak, misfit) must be up to no good, sinister, unpredictable, beyond our understanding, some kind of sociopath…. Or someone self-contained in ways we can only envy.
From the moment we’re born, we’re negotiating a pathway between merger and separation: wanting to be close, to be part of the group, to be intimate and trusting, but at the same time wanting to be independent, in need of no one, autonomous, solitary, proud. Young people scorn the extremes: the shy boy still wholly dependent on his mummy and the loner incapable of relationships. In ‘The Capacity to be Alone’ (1958), Winnicott argues that as children we internalize an experience of parents caring for us so that, if all goes well, we no longer need them to be physically present in order to know that they care about us. From now on we can be alone, safe in the knowledge that we’re not forgotten.
Obsessive social networking defends against the anxiety of aloneness and against other existential challenges, those challenges we can never protect ourselves from, the ones that are never assuaged by money or by plastic surgery or by having 4,175 friends on Facebook: the challenges of our lives being finite and of being ultimately alone in the world.
Phoning, texting, phoning, texting…. With young people the fear of aloneness is obvious whereas with adults it’s more disguised. Yet the more adults avoid talking about their own fear of aloneness, the harder it is for young people ever to develop a conversation about it. Finding that other people share the same fear is usually reassuring. Imagining that they don’t is quite terrifying.