The Crisis of Youth

Is social media crippling adolescent identity development?

Deep breaths. They really are.

It’s been two months since I read the article, My So-Called (Instagram) Life, and I am still thinking about it.

Author Clara Dollar, a senior at New York University, shares a poignant story about her struggle with forming meaningful relationships in a world consumed by technology. Bombarded by social media, millennials filter and crop and photoshop their reality until nothing is left but a two dimensional shadow of who they really are.

Imagine what it must be like to build a house bit by bit over eight years. And when you’re finished, you realize that you’ve trapped yourself inside. On the outside is the “self” you have created: cool, casual, and unemotional. The “real” you is trapped inside this prison, simultaneously pounding on the walls and terrified of being seen.

I think we all remember painful bits and pieces of middle and high school. For me, walking through the hallways of school felt like being in front of a roomful of critics. I remember trying on different identities like they were outfits, throwing personalities at my peers like fistfuls of spaghetti; hopeful that something sticks. I was constantly trying to set myself apart as different, but just a little different, the right kind of different. The type of different that still meant I was liked, I was popular, I fit in.

The kicker is that for my generation, the group that just a missed an adolescence captured on social media, my perceived audience was mostly imaginary. For today’s adolescent, the audience — while cyber — is very real. Self-worth is now tied up with “likes” and “followers.” Social media has even commodified the idea of identity, which has suddenly become synonymous with having a “brand.”

It’s clear that social media is leading to the degradation of today’s adolescent identity development…

…isn’t it?

Erik Erikson was an American psychologist perhaps most famous for coining the term “identity crisis.In Erikson’s 1968 book, Identity Youth and Crisis, Erikson not only predicts the millennial’s struggle with intimacy and identity development, he normalizes it.

According to Erikson, around 12–18 years old(middle and high school), adolescents begin their questioning of self. They begin asking the big questions such as Who am I, how do I fit in? If this stage of development is “interrupted”, adolescents will have a difficult time transitioning into the next stage of development, which focuses primarily on love and intimacy. This is the crux of Dollar’s piece. Unable to create a strong identity outside of her social media “self,” she feels she is emotionally unequipped to form meaningful relationships, hence pushing her romantic interest away.

Pick up any periodical today and you’ll probably find an article about the crisis of millennials today. Their inability to connect and form relationships. Their unhealthy addiction to technology. Psychologists and journalists and (yes even) educators write of their worries for this generation. You hear about it so much that you start to think it might be true, maybe millennials are emotionally broken beyond repair.

Somehow, my shoulders relax when I open up Erikson’s nearly fifty-year-old book that says:

“The youth of today is not the youth of twenty years ago. This much any elderly person would say, at any point in history, and think it was both new and true” (26).

Yes, the introduction of social media has amplified the “performance” of identity development, but Erikson assures us that it’s always been a performance. Whether shouted over social media, or strutted through the halls of a school, the behaviors are similar. We want to be liked. We want to be different, but not too different. We want to brag about our neuroses, because they make us cool and unique.

Erikson urges us to give adolescents the benefit of the doubt. They are aware of what we are saying about them, and as evidenced in Dollar’s article, they are extremely aware of their own “neuroses.” This is normal. This is good. This is all part of identity development. Even though Dollar writes of homes with no doors, she is writing. The very act of writing that article and her degree of self-awareness shows signs of her making a healthy transition to adulthood.

Erikson’s work gives me hope. He speaks of the constancy of the teen identity crisis. There will always be some version of a teen identity crisis, just as there will always be adults who have successfully struggled through them.

Even in 1968, Erikson saw that technology was here to stay. It wasn’t the degradation of society then, and it won’t be now. Before we know it, today’s teens will be happy and healthy adults, passing judgement on the next generation’s vices.