The New York Times recently published an article on teenagers who have decided to reduce or eliminate the time they spend on Facebook in order to bolster their grades, their offline social lives, and their self-esteem (“To Deal With Obsession, Some Defriend Facebook,” December 21, 2009, A16). I found the article especially interesting for the way it depicted teenagers and their relationship to technology. The story reinforces one of our dominant, culturally constructed beliefs about adolescence: namely, the notion that technology poses a particular threat to teens because they lack the maturity and willpower to use it in a responsible, temperate manner.
First consider how technology is represented. Throughout the article, Facebook is described as an addiction. Words like “habit,” “obsession,” and “temptation” appear, as do phrases such as “like an eating disorder,” the “lure of the login,” and “time consuming but perhaps not all that fulfilling.” One teenager mentioned by the piece even went on a “Facebook fast” for Lent. Here, technology is depicted as a drug that can be especially dangerous and abused in the hands of teens.
Next consider the representation of adolescents. The teenagers who have weaned themselves off of Facebook come across as having accomplished a remarkable victory. They had to undergo a fierce struggle, one that required them to fight against their inherent adolescent traits and tendencies. These exceptional teens exhibited “self-control,” “willpower,” and the ability to “delay gratification.” The presumption here is that teens fundamentally lack these qualities… and they do not acquire them until they become adults.
Indeed, an unstated assumption of this New York Times story is that adults can use technology like Facebook more responsibly because adults have self-control. However, many of my adult friends, myself included, are regular if not obsessive users of Facebook. I even tried to “quit” Facebook back in April, posting a status update that read, “Leaving Facebook in 10 days. I am both addicted and over it.” In ten days I stopped looking at my account, but did not deactivate it. Then two weeks later I was back on, and have basically logged in daily since then. The teens profiled in this article are made of stronger stuff than I.
One of the consequences of recirculating these assumptions about teens and technology in our mass news media is that it makes it easier for adults to claim the need to restrict or monitor teens’ use of technology. The passing of laws targeting teens and technology comes to be seen as normal and even necessary for their safety. For example, California recently passed a law prohibiting drivers under the age of 18 from using their cell phones; drivers over the age of 18, however, may use hands-free devices to talk on their phones. Video games are assigned ratings (not by law, but by voluntary industry self-regulation) and people under the age of 18 cannot purchase certain games.
I am interested in the larger questions raised by this story, questions about the role of technology in all of our lives, questions about the meaning of “maturity” and “immaturity” in our society, and questions about our cultural attitudes—and selective stigmas—regarding various “addictions” and “obsessions.”