When setting up for a live video stream of a rehearsal for Spencer Kane's summer tour in the studio at Remedy Live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he and I took a break to talk to the Director of Operations there. She was newly hired to handle day-to-day management of the facility and staff, but also engage in the anonymous chat conversations between the staff of Remedy and teens facing crisis. One such conversation entailed an anonymous teen girl who was describing her dilemma of how to handle a dating relationship with a boy that troubled her. The deeper the conversation went, the more the Director realized the girl had to be no more than 13 or 14 years old. What shocked the Director was to learn what dating meant to this girl. In 100% absolute confidence, the girl began to describe dating a boy for six months through texting and social media only. Nothing further was shared with Spencer and I about that crisis conversation. However, both the Director and I shook our head to fathom that dating was now a term to represent a pen pal. Spencer found it to be normal.
Welcome to a new generation of social reality that even my geeky and technically savvy self is scratching his head to figure out possible. Understanding the software engine that drives social media is one thing, but understanding the psychology behind the culture that is redefining traditional terms and practices I've always known as normal teen behavior of the past, that's a challenge.
I don't negatively judge the girl's ability to have feelings for a guy with whom she probably shared photos, sentimental words and even video chatting. It makes logical sense to conclude they would consider themselves boyfriend and girlfriend and dating. What I can't grasp is the first-hand experience I've had in seeing how this is becoming the norm. Managing social media for Spencer's career the past three years has exposed me to a virtual world where relationship development among users is a fascinating and mostly disturbing phenomena to me.
Television shows like "Catfish" on MTV focus on the effects of cyber-dating and the potential hoax that can occur since you never really meet one another outside of the internet. There is also a national crisis of cyberbullying that results in many teens harming themselves or others. These are a few among many negative byproducts of this digital culture our youth call normal.
For example, in the 2013 movie Warm Bodies, one particular scene takes place in a public setting with flashbacks of hundreds of pedestrians staring at their mobile devices as they walk to their destination. They never look forward or make eye contact with other people. The filmmaker made a poetic reference to the film's primary topic of zombies who are mindless wondering bodies seeking brains of live humans. This cute film showed the reversing of a zombie back to a human through the simple act of love and human interaction of a human toward them. They symbolized this generation of social media and texting driven culture as the dehumanizing effect that makes us all zombies.
It's clear that Internet technology has had an incredibly positive effect on commerce, communication and the most mundane tasks we all face each day like banking and paying bills. But my memory of using a wired house phone with a long cord stretched into the hall closet so we had privacy while talking to our crush, has been replaced by a typed language of emoticons and acronyms that without decryption offer the same privacy from parents. The handheld computer we call a smartphone has aided in creating a world based on human-to-technology interaction, but lacking the essence of physical human presence. We are experiencing the advent of a generation of youth who will grow up lacking the skill of interpreting the other 90% of communication which doesn't involve words or speech. Things like facial expressions (which emoticons are supposed to represent), body language, pitch of voice, inflection, volume (sometimes capital letters in typed communication), or even gestures add meaning to communication. These youth are being deprived of learning how to interact in the most basic and primal method our ancestors have passed along for thousands of years. Nonetheless, we are facing a transformation of what influences our youth like never before.
What is at the heart of this powerful influence of social media over our youth?
I'm certain there are several theories that would test true. I'm addressing it from my own experience and observations of the hundreds of thousands of teen posts I've read the past three years. Monitoring this online culture has taught me plenty about the mind of a teen. Added to the fact that Spencer has been a first-hand lab rat for me to observe, I feel wholly qualified to summarize my opinion in this blog. However, I'm still limited by the few channels of social media we've chosen to use for Spencer's public promotion and fan connection; Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Ask.fm, Vine, and Instagram.
The Need for Acceptance
One thing for certain is that most of the teens I've observed online have a seemingly unquenchable need for acceptance among their peers and social media allows them the ability to extend their net of search beyond their classroom walls and neighborhood streets. They are able to keep searching for connection with potential friends when the their local limitations yield none to their satisfaction. In some respects, it's escapism from reality. In another light, it shrinks the world in which we live and makes it possible for them to share in life's journey with someone who better understands them and is less judgmental. It's intoxicating. It's very real to youth.
Social media provides a platform whereby teens can categorize their friends into groups of likemindedness so they feel less alone. This provides a powerful psychological temptation to trust this online platform as a safe haven from the rejection they face offline from family members to school mates to fellow hobby participants. The need for acceptance is an addictive drug that escalates the need for a better smartphone, more apps to use, faster Internet, and the sometimes annoying fingertapping keys at the dinner table.
Answers to Life's Questions
Some of the questions I read on all of Spencer's social media platforms are anywhere from funny to tragic. Teens are searching for answers to their troubles. They are reaching out on social media to get some relief from their emotional and mental pain. Some are facing serious life threats. Some have shared of being abused physically, sexually or mentally. Some ask for relationship advice. From my perspective, I'm shocked that they aren't able to find those answers in their own family. It would be naive to assume that teens have close relationships with their parents, because statistically it's just not so. But when teens turn to social media for answers to questions I feel should be answered by their parents or responsible mentors, it raises a serious question as to why they are so comfortable in doing so.
Social media and the commonality of the friends and contacts many of them have made make it easier to ask the hard questions. They already feel a sense of acceptance, so it's only natural to reach out and use that safety group as a reference for how they would handle a difficult question. Because of this, it's very important that I monitor Spencer's social media to ensure his replies and statements are not contrary to what a responsible law-abiding adult would possibly advise, even though he is a teen himself. More specifically, finding ways to politely reply while pointing that teen back to their parents or other adult they may be willing to consider asking. (school counselors, pastor, etc.) The lighter questions are easier to address for Spencer, but the heavy ones require referrals to organizations like RemedyLive.com who handle teen crises seven days a week, or replies that he consults me about.
Looking for an Identity
Teens on social media seem to seek acceptance not only for who they are right now, but also for who they want to become. Sometimes social media is used to learn more about the kind of person they want to be. They read the comments and quotes of others in their social media connections and begin imitating those ideals. In this sense, social media becomes a highly influential teacher for youth. Their moral, ethical and intellectual values are being formed by what they read and experience online. They desire to become what the social media community espouses and portrays.
An easy example is knowing that Spencer represents a Christian value set that many of his fans identify with, but haven't yet learned how to express for themselves in a peer-pressure setting. Many of his fans relate to the posts he uploads and many reply with comments that affirm their own agreement. Many have written long emails sharing how much they appreciate knowing that they can be bolder about their identity because of Spencer's stand on social matters like bullying , staying pure until marriage, or even appreciating wholesome music. His social media followers stick around because most share his identity as being one they want for themselves.
The Popularity Contest
Obviously, youth (like me 30 years ago) are caught in the sad treadmill of trying to be the popular kid in school or in their community for whatever reason. Many teens use social media to gain popularity, which is very addictive when attained to any measure. The VINE app on smartphones is one of the most rapidly-growing platforms. On VINE, six-second clips of video have made many teens famous in a short time. Humor, music and documented video footage of real-life events have created the ability for teens to gain admirers. The most perplexing byproduct of Vine is the commercial benefit it has made for random kids who somehow have created a fanbase willing to pay sometimes up to $150 per ticket to meet them at a mall or parking lot in a nearby city.
From that standpoint, social media is becoming a way for teens to earn money and fame. It's a lottery that seems possible to win with some moderate effort and wide net of friends to share the posts with their friends.
The Sharing of Face and Body
This seems obvious, but instead of emphasizing teens who are naturally blessed with good looks and fit bodies, social media and software like Photoshop and the fact that every smartphone now has a camera have created a desire for teens to boost their attractiveness in search of a significant boyfriend or girlfriend. Selfies are the way conversations can be started, much the same a cute girl used to capture my attention at the mall growing up. Almost every social media platform has the ability to upload photos at a minimum, and videos if they are well-developed apps. Because teens gravitate to audio and visual stimulation more than reading, social media enables them instant gratification and connection without the pain of reading paragraphs of information. It's the metaphor of a picture book as a toddler where the images tell the story more than words.
Teens of both genders spend hours a week taking selfies to post to their social media to enlist responses and comments from their followers and friends. Some use less discretion in what they show in these photos, but still garner attention. Some doctor the photos with filters and strategically placed props or hands to hide features they are embarrassed to show so they can find acceptance despite their perceived flaws. While it screams vanity, it really is just an extension of the offline clothes, makeup or accessories kids spend money on to be visually acceptable. Instagram, in 2013, because more used than Facebook among teens. It's quick, easy and more stimulating for teens to engage one another than reading words. As such, the cameras on phones are an essential tool to extend the power of social media over teens.
Attractive teens parlay thousands of followers while some teens use photos of their idols in place of their own profile pic so they can attract people to follow and pay attention to them. This is a much deeper social issue among humans than I want to engage in this blog, but having the ability to photo document their life taps into the reality TV mindset our youth are raised believing normal. Seeing what occurs in the private lives of one another can be entertaining, and highly relatable, which adds to the feeling that teens seek for acceptance and identity.
When we take time to understand what social media apps provide youth and perhaps why they are investing so much time in them, it becomes obvious how this new social culture exists.
For all the good we can extract from social media, the potential for negative experiences also exists. Moderating social media for Spencer has illuminated the negatives in a way that I fear for youth and their parents who are disconnected from what happens in this sub-culture.
Words are powerful. They can encourage or destroy the volatile confidence of a teen when read on social media. I am a serious watchdog over what words are allowed to exist on Spencer's timelines both from followers and his posts. We are very strategic about how to phrase something so it isn't misunderstood and typically err on the side of positive words and phrases to make sure people aren't left with feeling isolated or alone.
Stalkers and pedophiles are both cunning and bold. Spotting them on teen social media has become a skill I've learned. To date, we've blocked nearly 700 accounts on Twitter alone when learning of the unsafe potential. Even bully-type posters are blocked to ensure we aren't allowing that type of negative content to exist.
Beyond my oversight, Spencer tries to purposely share his personality in every post. He shares jokes, funny life experiences and memes which depict relatable images that his peers would find funny. He quotes inspirational and encouraging things that he knows his followers and friends would like to hear because it moves him as well. We collectively strive to make his social media experience positive for him and those who are connected to his social media accounts.
As a parent and former pastor, I find social media to be highly disturbing but highly effective in sharing positive message and posts. It is the new frontier of reaching youth but one that has its share of dangers like the early settlers experienced in the old west.
While the power of social media is undeniable, the ignorance among adults is the biggest threat to the lives of youth. Simply choosing to trust a youth with good decisions on social media is naive. It is our responsibility to be educated just like it was my parents to understand drug abuse and its effects when I was a teen. Providing our youth with a smartphone or internet access has a great amount of benefits. But the tradeoff of allowing social media to form their ideals and identity is too dangerous to not be proactively aware of what they are reading and posting.
If the power of social media overtakes your child, it is because you chose to remain ignorant.