Our teens are growing up in a social media world. Our own data (from my lab) suggest that adolescents spend significantly more time interacting with friends via technology than in person (or by voice). Social media is not supplementing human interaction; it is replacing it for today’s adolescents. And it’s not just Twitter and Facebook (adolescents tell us those platforms are “so 2012”). Instagram and Snapchat are hot now, and probably at least a few more will become so within the 5 minutes after I post this.
So, what happens when an entire generation of adolescents grows up in a world where social media interactions have become the norm. Here are 10 hypotheses based on a little data (more work is sorely needed in this understudied area) and some conjecture.
1. Eating disorders will increase in prevalence. A very common adolescent activity on Instagram is to take a picture of the plate of food in front of you, inviting comments, “likes,” and possible reinforcement. Adolescent girls also are more likely to post body pics (than facial shots), inviting more evaluation of body shape. This generation is headed for more body concerns.
2. Workplace efficiency will increase dramatically. These kids know how to multi-task, and they know how to have complex conversations using technology. The days of flying to a distant city for an in-person meeting are dwindling. We won’t rely on leadership from a person sitting at the head of a board room table for much longer, nor will public speaking within a debate-format meeting hold the same weight anymore. Decisions will be made in real time from one’s own tablet screen, and leadership will be based on those who offer short, quick, impactful comments to an ongoing conversation. Decisions may not be as well thought out, but they will be fast. Decreasing business travel will change the transportation and hotel industries.
3. The national marriage rate will decrease. A remarkable amount of romantic relationship interactions occur on social media among adolescence. It practically is unheard of to flirt or “ask someone out” in person anymore; this almost all occurs by following someone’s feed, liking their comments, and then “texting” an invite for a date. Adolescents don’t say they are dating as much as they say that they are “talking to” someone. Kids discuss sex, use of protection from sexually transmitted infections, and even break up—all online now at remarkably high rates. Ending a relationship is as easy as changing your status, or “unfollowing” someone. Kids who grow up in a world that does not require in-person discussions of conflict, a strong commitment, and a courtship based on in-person interactions will have great difficulties with marriage.
4. The workplace will become more competitive. Social media is helping adolescents learn how to market and promote themselves. They have an early education of creating a public persona and maintaining their image at a much larger scale than we have ever seen before. No longer do kids merely think about how their outfit or behavior will help make an impression among their classroom peers. Adolescents are now attuned to the social implications of every mouse click. Who they follow, who they like, what they post, what they comment on is all meant for public consumption and evaluation. In many cases, adolescents even report that their primary goal within social media interactions is to gather peer support, increase their status, and gain more followers—not because this translates to better in-person interactions; social media rewards are the end-goal. A generation of youth who grow up this savvy in creating a public image will become a cohort of young adults who have been trained to promote their accomplishments, solicit the attention of their superiors, and increase their sense of importance to anyone who will listen.
5. Expect major difficulties with emotion regulation, especially if the power goes out. Not many years ago, adolescents who called their best friend on the telephone to discuss a problem might get a busy signal, and they would have to wait. Waiting gave adolescents an opportunity to engage in a variety of strategies to help regulate their own emotion (i.e., pause, calm down, distract, think about ways to feel better). These days are gone for today’s teens. Adolescents now expect (and get!) instantaneous support and input about any fleeting emotional experience they have. In fact, adolescents report that they completely expect to receive responses from friends within 10 minutes whenever they post a problem or concern; in fact, failure to do so has friendship consequences. Is this the same level of support that others used to get during a phone call? Are these adolescents capable of self-regulating emotion? How will they do so as adults?
6. Our country will become further divided ideologically. Most challenges to one’s belief system come from constructive interactions with people who hold differing opinions. This is a good thing. These interactions help us reconsider our viewpoints, expand our knowledge base, and challenge assumptions. Teens today grow up in a world with far more rigid social boundaries. Adolescents have firm in-groups and out-groups established on social media. Although it may seem that the internet creates more social opportunities, there is emerging evidence to suggest that these increased social opportunities are more likely to be within one’s existing extended social network, rather than with folks who are more likely to represent new viewpoints. Moreover, it is too easy to simply reject a new viewpoint with a dismissive, anonymous post that inhibits reciprocal dialogue. The national discourse will become more heated with subgroups that reinforce each other’s opinion rather than cross-talk.
7. Our government will better represent the public’s wishes. Today’s adult generation has become so frustrated and apathetic regarding our government that we expect a disconnect between our wishes and our elected official’s behavior. The next generation will not tolerate anything other than a government characterized by full transparency, and an active, real-time reciprocal dialogue. Today’s adolescents have grown up in an interactive world; they have been taught that their vote counts and they can tweet with anyone. Adolescents vote all day on things that matter to them (whether it is Beyonce’s next video release, contributing to a crowdsource campaign for what movies they want to see, voting for The Voice), and they can talk directly with Justin Bieber as easily as they can talk to their teacher. Politicians will have to get used to tweeting their constituents, having a voting base that knows how to Google every vote they have cast, and knowing that today’s teens will grow up feeling a power in their vote in a way that their parents never did.
8. Goodbye US Post Office! Well, the post office is on its last legs already, so this one is easy. Many schools have stopped teaching children how to write in cursive, and most kindergarteners are already “keyboarding” more efficiently than their parents (note: I am typing this with 4 fingers). Here’s a fun exercise for you to try: ask an adolescent today to address an envelope—can they?
9. The Meaning of Life = Fame. Another one we already see the signs of now! Adolescents brains are wired to be extremely attuned to their social world, with a real focus on anything that will get a social reward. It used to be that social rewards were just affection, support, popularity, friendship, or positive attention, usually from a few kids at school. Those social rewards now can occur on a world wide scale—literally—so we see adolescents’ desire for social rewards going haywire! Interestingly, adolescents’ brains are simultaneously wired to have a less developed capability for planful, thoughtful action. So, these are kids who want social rewards, and they want them now, and they’ll take them in whatever impulsive way they can get them! This is why Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. What happens when these kids grow up? Check out your TV guide and count the number of reality shows on air at this moment. That number is likely to increase, or perhaps evolve to allow for even more ways for people who grew up wanting public attention to continue to feel socially rewarded on a large scale.
10. Social Media Fatigue? Will social media interactions ever fall out of vogue? The platforms that adolescents prefer change all the time; practically the instant that adolescents believe that adults have started to join them on their forms of social media (i.e., Facebook is not cool if your parents are doing it too!). But will adolescents stop using social media platforms altogether? Adolescents report significant distress regarding the networking demands now placed upon them. Adolescents have to stay “up to date” with so many friends’ feeds. They must be sure to “like” some friends’ posts or pics consistently; adolescents report feeling betrayed and insulted if someone fails to “like” what they posted as much as that friend “liked” someone else’s posts. They are inundated with requests for interaction at all times of the day and they report feeling pressured, burdened, and tired. Is this the beginning of the end of social media?
What would adolescents today think if they were assigned “Animal Farm,” “1984,” and “Brave New World” in English classes (to read on their Kindles of course) like we were? Adolescents are living in these worlds we thought were so futuristic, and social media has begun to make these future visions come true. It will be an interesting next decade as this “Twitbook Generation” grows up and enters adulthood. Let’s see how many post this article to their social media profiles!
Copyright © 2014, Mitch Prinstein. All rights reserved.