Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Dual Citizenship of Today's Adolescents

Learning to adequately function in both offline and online worlds is challenging

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

“Two-worlders” I call them, the first generation of adolescents who graduated into young adulthood (a little after the college-age years) having grown all the way up from infancy living in dual overlapping and interconnected worlds of reality. I mean by this the actual offline world of reality and the virtual online world of reality. Some call these young people “the millennial generation.”

Since birth they have inhabited the smaller Interpersonal actual world where communication and interaction are directly conducted, and the vast virtual Internet world where communication and interaction are electronically mediated.

Today, achieving functional independence involves developing competence and solid citizenship in both realms of life experience.

While parents may complain that the young person’s computer device is “on” all the time, this is not really a problem to solve, but a reality to work with. In various technological forms, the computer is an electronic appendage, an auxiliary brain, as natural as that. An electronic enabler, it serves a multitude of functions – information retrieval, communication, social networking, entertainment, shopping, creative expression, and problem solving for example. It is an integral part of a millennial young person’s functioning, and that isn’t going to change.

In consequence of growing up in these two worlds, parenting young people has become more than doubly complicated. Now they must help the adolescent keep the two worlds adequately separated, adequately integrated, and adequately balanced.

Adequate Separation.

When it comes to adequate Separation, for example, it’s important for the adolescent to understand that while spoken communication in the real world is not recorded, may be kept private and have no lasting presence; in the virtual world, digital communication is encoded and recorded, is not private and can be permanently held in memory and shared who knows where. In addition, while online communication may feel more freely anonymous; there is no anonymity on the Internet. Thus, intimate, impulsive, or possibly compromising communication is probably best done face to face, not file to file.

Adequate Integration.

When it comes to adequate Integration, for example, it’s important for the adolescent, who is using the Internet as a world-wide online brain-trust to inform offline interest or understanding, to evaluate the reliability of that online assistance and information. Sites on the internet are designed to a purpose. Each sets its own agenda for catching the interest of who happens to surf by, profiting by the visit in some way. Is the site all it seems? Is what is being offered to be trusted? When integrating online information with offline understanding and decision-making, it’s “consumer beware.”

Adequate Balance.

When it comes to adequate Balance, for example, how does the adolescent achieve a constructive mix of offline and online activity? A natural competition for attention has been created between the two worlds, between engaging with many mundane demands of offline life or escaping into online entertainment that is ever-beckoning and always available. Adolescents often do not have a high tolerance for boredom from not knowing what to do or feeling trapped in what they don’t like to do. Among other benefits, what the Internet provides is an ever-present escape from the demands of dull engagement, an exciting alternative to boredom where there is always something interesting and novel to discover, see, and do. For a bored adolescent, maintaining a healthy online/offline balance can be hard to do.

What brought the topic of this blog to my attention was an interview question from a journalism student: “In your opinion what are the biggest contributors to the trend of millennials living at home?” (I had not heard about this circumstance trending.)

Part of my reply was that since millennials are, among other things, the first full Internet generation, I thought maybe one (not the only) contributing factor might be young people having indulged in online escape at the expense of offline education. Much of the hard work of growing up (building practical offline skills, problem solving offline experience, assuming offline responsibilities) requires laboring in the fields of relatively unglamorous and comparatively boring offline life. In this way, they may have slowed down the development of functional independence.

Thus some millennials may choose to live a while longer at home where they can continue to be sheltered and partly taken care of, deferring self-support and direction, needing more offline time and practice before feeling ready to move out and begin their independent way.

Perhaps it just takes longer to grow up in two worlds than it used to in one. Perhaps learning adequate separation, integration, and balance required by today's dual citizenship just takes more time.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Negotiating Incompatible Differences with Your Adolescent