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)
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