Media’s Externalization of Your Children’s Self-identity

October 11th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

“To all of Chris’ friends: This is his father. My son carelessly left his account logged in so I decided to snoop around. Upon reading my son’s personal information, I would like to clear a few things up. My son is not a ‘gangsta,’ he will not ‘beat a ho’s ass’ and he will most certainly not ‘roll a fatty wit his boyz.’ So for all of those who think he is some hard ass thug, think again…he is Chris _______, a 15 year old kid that was afraid of the dark until he was 12 and cried at the end of Marley and Me.”  — Father changing his son’s Facebook status

facebook_kidsIs there anything more important to your children’s long-term development than the formation of a healthy self-identity? The self-identity encompasses the totality of the knowledge and understanding that children gain about themselves including their personalities, aptitudes and capabilities, intellectual and physical attributes, interests, and relationships. The self-identity includes not only present perceptions, but also future and idealized self-conceptions that act as the aspirations and goals toward which children strive. Your children’s self-identity, that is, how they come to think of themselves, define who they are as people, and see themselves as unique all play a vital role in the people that your children become and the direction that their lives take.

Self-identity also involves two separate, though related, “mechanisms:” self-awareness and self-esteem. Self-awareness refers to your children’s ability to be introspective and understand who they are, for example, their personality, values, needs, attitudes, and emotions. Self-esteem is your children’s general evaluation of their competence and worth as a person based on what they know of themselves from their self-awareness and feedback from their social world.

As children mature, healthy self-identity becomes clearly defined; children come to know who they are. It’s also internally and externally congruent, meaning different perceptions that children hold about themselves are consistent and those perceptions are not in conflict with feedback they receive about themselves from the world around them.

Importantly, a healthy self-identity provides children with three essential “senses” that act as the foundation for future development. First, self-identity gives children a sense of consistency and stability over time, helping them to feel safe and secure and from which they are comfortable exploring the limits of their abilities. Second, it gives children a sense of uniqueness from which they can seek out their own individual place and make their own special contributions to the world. Third, self-identity gives them a sense of affiliation in which, while seeing themselves as distinct beings, also feel an integral part of a group and capable of building nurturing relationships in different aspects of their lives.

Externalization of Self-identity

One aspect of self-identity that is particularly relevant is that children gain their self-identity through both self-observation and information from their social world. As children gain self-awareness, they observe and evaluate their own behavior based on past experience, current needs, and future goals and dreams. They also look outward to their social, academic, physical, artistic, and spiritual worlds in which they live for feedback that also shapes their self-identity. Because children are fundamentally social beings and an essential part of their development involves finding their place in the social and cultural context in which they live, feedback from that social world plays a significant role in the evolution of their self-identity.

Because children’s social worlds have expanded dramatically in the last decade, from families, friends, neighborhoods, and schools to an almost-limitless universe of people due to the proliferation of the Internet, it isn’t difficult to see how external forces may now be gaining a disproportionate influence over the development of children’s self-identity compared to previous generations where their social worlds were far more confined. These social influences, accelerated by the explosion of technology, may be interfering with the healthy development of self-identity in children.

One of the most powerful ways in which popular culture and technology are altering the way in which self-identity is established in children is through the shift from being internally to externally driven. Yes, as I just described, social factors have always had an impact on the formation of self-identity, but they had been, up until recently, balanced partners of sorts with children’s own internal contributors to self-identity. Now the sheer ubiquity and force of the recent technological advances has taken that influence and turned its volume up to a deafening roar.

In previous generations, most of the social forces that influenced children’s self-identities were positive; parents, peers, schools, communities, extracurricular activities, even the media sent mostly healthy messages to children about who they were and how they should perceive themselves. Yes, there were bad influences, but they were far outweighed by those that were beneficial to children. These forces acted mostly as a mirror reflecting back on children what they saw in themselves, resulting in affirmation rather than change in their self-identity.

But now, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme in a social world where the profit motive trumps concern for children’s well being and where healthy influences are mostly drowned out by the cacophony of popular culture as transmitted by the latest technology.

The self-identities of this generation of children are now shaped by external forces in two ways. First, popular culture, through today’s media, no longer holds a mirror to reflect children’s self-identities. Nor does it provide feedback about how grounded their self-identities are in the reality of their lives. Instead, popular culture manufactures “portraits” of who it wants children to be. Tapping into children’s most basic needs to feel good about themselves, accepted, and attractive, popular culture tells children what they should believe about themselves.

The problem is that the self-identity that is shaped by popular culture serves its own best interests rather than those of children. Additionally, self-identity is no longer really self-identity, meaning derived from the self, but rather is an identity projected onto children by popular culture and in no way a reflection of who children are, what the British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield calls the “Nobody Scenario.”

Second, technology has caused children to shift away from expressing their self-identities and toward constructing a façade based on the answer to the question, “How can I ensure that others view me positively?” The goal for children in their use of technology, whether Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or text messaging, becomes how they can curry acceptance, popularity, status, and, by extension, self-esteem. Self-awareness and self-expression give way to a preoccupation with what others think, impression management, and self-promotion. As the writer Christine Rosen wrote in her 2007 article in The New Atlantis, “Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.

Children come to see their identities not as expressions of who they are and what they believe, but rather the identities they would like to have or that they want people to see. They then feel compelled to promote and market these identities using technology rather than embracing and expressing internally generated and accurate expressions of who they really are.

The line between person and persona, private and public self become blurred or erased completely and the so-called self-identity, which is supposed to be a reflection of the individuality of each child, becomes rather a means of their acceptance and status among others who reside in their digital communities. Yet, in children’s extensive efforts to be “liked”—an act of accumulation to be taken on Facebook—by manipulating their persona, they come to believe that they’re not worthy of being liked—an expression of affection, in the original sense of the word—for the person that they really are.

Paradoxically, in striving for approval from their social world writ large through technology and in seeking uniqueness that enables children to stand out in the densely populated cyber world, they unwittingly sacrifice their true self-identities and shape their identities to conform to what the digital world views as acceptable. In doing so, children relinquish the specialness that they hold so dear. Notes Christine Rosen, “Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of MySpace [before Facebook rose to preeminence] most striking to anyone who spends a few hours trolling its millions of pages: it is an overwhelmingly dull sea of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness.” Because children’s needs for acceptance and status are so strong and the external forces so powerful and pervasive, they have little choice but to capitulate and adopt the identities that are imposed on them rather than seek out their true self-identities.

This post is excerpted from Dr. Jim Taylor’s new parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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