Challenges facing a teenager in the internet age

Why is it so much more difficult to be a teenager in the 21st century?

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A friend described what it was like being a teenager: “As for me, the main give-away when I was troubled, was listlessness. And what nearly killed me was shyness, and it feels even now that the lack of self-worth was so powerful as to have been inherited from the soul that was born into my body. As from a previous life. I seemed powerless against it”. He was a teenager a long time ago and as much as the world has changed, some things stay the same. Being a teenager has never been easy.
The many changes taking place in both their bodies and in their brains are the same as they have always been. According to science, the growing brain only settles into regulated patterns when we turn 25 years old. Up until then most teenagers are selfish, self-absorbed and self-centred, impulsive, lazy, moody, risk-seeking, frustrated, messy and angry. And then there are also surging hormones to contend with – rapidly growing bodies and sexual development – all designed to make teenagers feel uncomfortable, misshapen, out of place and sometimes downright ugly.
Peer pressure is no longer just a matter of school marks, likes on Instagram, wearing the latest fashion, boyfriends / girlfriends, it can now be a matter of life or death as more and more dangerous drugs come onto the market, the most recent and potentially lethal is a synthetic marijuana called Spice. It’s legal, it doesn’t show up on drug tests, and there have been cases in South Africa of teenagers dying from their first hit. Research suggests that teenagers get addicted faster than adults.
Now add the internet to this already lethal mix and it’s no wonder parents, teachers and mental health professionals are so worried about teenagers and the state of their mental health. Our teens are over-stimulated and over-exposed. The internet is pervasive. Its tendrils reach into every aspect of life – from entertainment and games, learning, work, communication and personal communication and identity formation.
Peer pressure and bullying used to take place in the playground or at a party. Today our teenagers cannot escape the bullies or the peer pressure by going home. They have 24-hour connectivity via their smartphones. There is no escape. Cyber-bullying is also cause for grave concern. In cyberspace the bully and his or her behavior is covert and hidden. Children can say things to each other that they would perhaps not be able to say as easily face-to-face. If something ugly is posted on the internet and shared it cannot be undone. Messages and images can travel exponentially through cyberspace via sharing and likes and once it’s there, it’s there forever.
Free and easy access to information, the greatest benefit to our society, is also our greatest concern. All you need is a Smartphones to access pornography – it free and readily available, sometimes even if you’re not looking for it. Research shows that the flickering blue light can cause poor sleeping patterns, depression, poor concentration at school. Attention spans last as long as it takes to flick the thumb onto the next page, platform or chat. Sleep, it has been proven, is a teenager’s greatest ally.
The only escape is the ‘off’ button. But switching off is also something they struggle to do because they lack access to their frontal lobes (that part of the brain that tells them they’ve had enough). The world is more complicated, and paradoxically with increased connectivity the risk of disconnection and alienation increases. Social media and school in its current form are here to stay – we, as parents, are going to have to learn ways to manage them both creatively.
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