I do not envy our four teenagers in the least: far from carefree, their adolescence is a tangled web of angst that is, I think, qualitatively different from that of past generations. The difference, I suggest, stems from a unique constellation of cultural habits that has exacerbated their self-consciousness to an almost-paralyzing degree.
Granted, self-consciousness is part of the rite of passage that is adolescence. The hormonal effects on teenaged bodies make them realize they are bodies in ways that surprise them. They inhabit their bodies as foreign guests, constantly imagining that all eyes are upon them as they go to sharpen their pencil or climb the stairs at a football game. Such self-consciousness has always bred its own warped ontology in which the teenager is the center of the universe, praying both that no one will notice and that everyone would.
The advent of social media has amplified this exponentially. In the past, there would have been spaces where adolescents could escape from these games, most notably in the home. Whatever teenagers might have thought of their parents, they certainly didn’t have to put on a show for them. The home was a space to let down your guard, freed from the perpetual gaze of your peers. You could almost forget yourself. You could at least forget how gawky and pimpled and weird you were, freed from the competition that characterizes teenagedom.
No longer. The space of the home has been punctured by the intrusion of social media such that the competitive world of self-display and self-consciousness is always with us. The universe of social media is a ubiquitous panopticon.
The teenager at home does not escape the game of self-consciousness; instead, she is constantly aware of being on display – and she is regularly aware of the exhibitions of others. Her Twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the “popular” girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to constantly be “on,” to be “updating” and “checking in.” The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself – and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude: burrowing into a novel, pouring herself out in a journal, playing with fanciful forms in a sketch pad. More pointedly, she loses any orientation to a project. Self-consciousness is the end of teleology…
With the expansion of social media, every space is a space of “mutual self-display.” As a result, every space is a kind of visual echo chamber. We are no longer seen doing something; we’re doing something to be seen.