Can the Internet Set You Free?

Read some of the news and trends stories and you’ll come away convinced that the Internet is ruining a generation of young people. They sit in front of its glowing lights and don’t move or go outside. They’re isolated! They’re fat! They get bullied! And so on!

Maybe some of that is true — and when it is, you can be sure there’s a story tsk-tsking about the shame of it all and the ruination of some fresh-faced Internet victim or another.

But I’m convinced there’s another side to the story that’s equally valid. I’m convinced that kids who were like I was growing up — paralyzed by shyness, tongue-tied, always teetering on the brink of sure social humiliation — have happier adolescences because of the Internet. What they can’t say in a group in the overwhelming and scary real world, they can type or text.

Be yourself! That’s what all the you-can-be-popular guides always said. My mother was always slipping me one of those books or pamphlets so I could learn how to be effortlessly myself and confident and popular. Mother herself had been popular in junior high, high school, college and adulthood, and I don’t think she could ever figure out how she and my (equally popular) father had managed to spawn such a social zero. I spent all my time reading and daydreaming, which weren’t considered life-enhancing activities in my family.

Be yourself! I think those are two of the cruelest words ever written. In a world that demanded social ease, coolness and extroversion, I wanted to be anybody but myself.

If you don’t have painful adolescent memories of being in a large, loud circle of people, laughing just a little too late, trying to be one of the group, you have no idea what I mean. Nor would you know how dreadful it was when one of the big talkers turned to you and said loudly, “Wow! You’re really quiet today!” Then everybody turned to look at you and you wanted to die, as your cheeks flamed and your mouth went dry.

I’m inclined to think that, for the most part, things stay pretty much the same as time trudges onward. I don’t think today’s kids are much different from my generation or my parents’ generation; most of the obvious differences are pretty superficial (tattoos, nose rings, etc.)

But the Internet has introduced a new era where nerds and geeks can shine in a way they never could before — often from the safe privacy of their own rooms. Even the shyest, most awkward kids can have bigger, more vibrant online personas.

I try this theory out on my friend Sophia Dembling, who writes the Introvert’s Corner for Psychology Today. She thinks I’m way off-base:

It seems to me that the Internet just adds one more level of social interaction that we have to learn to navigate. Teens are awkward. I don’t know that we would have been any less awkward online than off. A shy teen might be emboldened online, but still be awkward.

Even people like us, who are comfortable writing, were just learning how back then. Who knows what kind of embarrassing blurts we would have committed on FB? Have you ever gone back to reread poetry you wrote as a teenager? Yikes.

Then Sophie messages me that I’m confusing shyness with introversion — and the difference is key. Introverts aren’t shy, they’re simply not the life of the party and they like it that way. I’m talking about adolescent shyness, not introversion, Sophie is hinting.

Oh, well, I think. Major bummer. So much for my next great idea.

So, maybe I’m just kidding myself, after all. Maybe adolescence is a painful mess for most of us no matter when we come of age.

Still, who am I to let a few irritating facts get in the way of a beautiful theory? It’s such an attractive idea to think that high technology has unleashed something in those of us with softer voices and shaking knees. Anyway, as the Hemingway character said, it’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a similar post about that one moment when your life changes

13 comments… add one
  • Well I’ve always thought that Shyness was but a symptom of strong Introversion. Growing up, I was always tucked away somewhere reading, daydreaming or– eavesdropping on the adults. After all, one can’t have the persona of being the attention-getting “life of the party,” and still maintain the invisibility needed to avidly eavesdrop.

    I look upon all the time I invest on the internet and wish I could of had a laptop with me all through adolescence. For starters, there is always something available to study or read– ebooks, etc. Research tools abound aiding daydreaming. Forums and blogs offer the option of participating via comments or maintaining invisibility by only visiting and reading them. I think growing up with the internet would have strengthened the backbone of my innate Introversion and put my mental growth on a faster track. I agree with your differing viewpoint.

  • Well, I am nearing 60 and I consider myself both introverted and shy. I like being with people but on my own terms. The Internet was love at first log-in for me. I so wish it had been around when I was a teen…and in my 20’s, 30’s….I never even liked talking on the phone. Although I don’t text, I think I would have taken right to it as a teen, too. And I could have indulged my love of writing by blogging. The Internet would have set me free. I don’t mind I had to wait, though. Better late than never.

  • Great post. As a teenager, I was one of those who could go either way. I was the comfortable in the geeky crowd and the cheerleader/jock click. I always felt lucky because neither group picked on me but I wasn’t actually either one. I would have LOVED, LOVED, LOVED growing up with the internet. First I loved to read more than ride a bike and that would have been easier with a Kindle. Second, I probably would have found a group of friends who were more like me — not exactly geeky and not exactly popular. Although I always say I grew up at the best time. I am in my early 60’s and I was a flower child (a somewhat shy one) during an age of social revolution. That was a great time.

  • Cindy A

    I don’t know. I have been completely horrified and/or alarmed of late with postings on Facebook by my young nieces and nephews. There are things that should remain in your head or only revealed to your best friend, not spill-your-guts to 400 “friends” that might include a petrified aunt. Several posts I have shown to my middle school daughter with the message to never, ever do that (fortunately, she was also struck speechless by the posts and agreed). On the popularity issue, we were in Half Price Books the other day, and I couldn’t help but quietly shed a tear when my beautiful but extremely shy daughter picked “How to Be Popular” from a pile of one-dollar books. She’s got so much more going for her than I did at her age, but all these years later, the pain is the same.

  • M.K.

    I think you’re exactly right. No, the internet won’t help the hopelessly inarticulate, whether shy or outgoing, make friends. However, for the expressive teen who is shy, introverted, unattractive, or isolated, it can open a new world of social interaction.

    And while you’re at it, note that it can do the same for older groups. Elderly people can maintain a bustling social life online. Younger and middle-agers can indulge relaxing hobbies after work that would never be possible without the internet. Sure, the tubes can be used for ill & evil, but also for great good.

  • I’m pretty sure the internet would have made my miserable childhood and teen-hood much, much worse. At least when I was home, I was away from it all.

  • I know they are two different things and one can be changed (shyness) and the other can’t (introversion), but I also think you are right to assume that they tend to be closely intertwined in teens. I was a painfully shy introvert as a teen. Now I’m not shy, but I’m still an introvert.

  • I’m guessing that, at that time in my life, it would have distracted me from the schoolwork I needed to do and didn’t want to do…and I wouldn’t have known how to tear myself away, exactly. How do I know? That is kind of how I was with the telephone.

  • Christine

    I sometimes find social media quite stressful, so I don’t know if it would have helped me when I was young and even less stable and certain of myself. I’ve been reading an interesting book lately – “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.” About teenagehood today. Eye-opening!

  • I think you’re right, that time of life sucks no matter when you came of age.

  • I’m shy AND introverted, so I’m with you. As for this:

    “Nor would you know how dreadful it was when one of the big talkers turned to you and said loudly, ‘Wow! You’re really quiet today!’ Then everybody turned to look at you and you wanted to die, as your cheeks flamed and your mouth went dry.”

    Um. That still happens to me.

    Online? I’m a better version of myself. For sure.

  • I’m with Alisa–not shy but introverted. But I’m also amazed at what people post on FB. I have jitters going back to elementary school where you were always warned not to reveal too many details to strangers, now it seems, you can (and many do) put everything online.

  • Sandra Wilkie

    Introversion is a good thing Everything you can’t learn from jawing away at a party, you can learn from listening and reading- no “how-to” books necessary.

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