From 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first considered how technology and social media have created new struggles to gain social visibility. This one focuses on how these technologies have enabled new kinds of social invisibility.
You can read all the essays in this series here.
In previous generations students often conducted illicit communications by passing paper notes. This was a risky business; adults could often spot such behavior and confiscate the note and even make it public. Cell phones and text messages have made such communications harder to detect and police. Students claim that popular teenagers send a message every five to ten minutes. No student of earlier days could get away with passing that many paper notes. Today's teenagers are nearly unanimous in reporting that students generally ignore the rules intended to discourage cell-phone use:
- “Matt said the existence of these rules does not actually stop his friends or any other students from using their phones.”
- “… Julie’s group does not usually follow the rules about technology use …”
- “Alex said there were no strict rules governing cell phone use in school. He said some teachers will attempt to implement no texting rules in class, but they rarely are followed by students.”
One teacher attempted to deal with the problem by allowing students to have a couple of two- minute phone breaks during his fifty-minute classes. This apparently reduced the texting during other times in the period.
These new forms of communication create a whole additional realm of discourse that occurs simultaneously with classroom activity. Of course students have typically talked and gossiped during lunch periods, between classes, and in other blocks of “free time,” but calling, texting, and messaging are now becoming a 24/7 activity. It is unclear whether this actually affects how well students master the curriculum.
The relatively low visibility of cell-phone use has also made it easier for teenagers to communicate with people their parents might not approve of. This is especially the case for younger students who can't yet drive and hence have trouble seeing people outside of school. One of the great fears of parents is “stranger danger”—especially older adults who might be trying to prey upon younger people. There has also been an outcry that the invisibility of young people’s communications has contributed to the texting of sexual messages and picture to others. The available research shows that while there are risks, adults tend to overestimate the probability of these dangers.
In addition to being able to communicate “invisibly” it is also easy and common for teenagers to make the content of their social-media sites invisible to parents and adults:
Gloria [said] she restrict[ed] adults’ abilities to see her profile because she did not want them seeing everything … Amy said she did the same thing … Missy agreed, saying that there was a picture on her Facebook with a bottle of Patron [Tequila] … and that [an adult friend] commented on the picture, so now she was going to increase her privacy on her page.
A more subtle form of invisibility has developed. A teacher complained, “… [the new] technologies have made eye contact more noticeably absent from the classroom." He said that as a teacher, he had to try to get students attention to get them to look up. It is difficult to know whether the decrease of this form of visible face-to-face contact decreases student learning, though its seems likely the decline of interpersonal visibility has costs.
Another kind of invisibility involves posting messages on online bulletin boards either anonymously or by using false or pseudo identities. This allows people to say things publicly without having to take responsibility for what they say. A teenager says, “Some students use social media to post mean things about others [and this] created a new platform for influencing social relationships.”
In another account, an anonymous Twitter account called “Our Confessions” was started at one school. It allowed students to message “confessions” involving everything from crushes on fellow students to accusations of student-teacher relationships. Twitter would anonymously “tweet” these confessions out. Anyone who chose to follow this account could read these (anonymous) tweets.
Online bulletin boards clearly provide tempting vehicles opportunities and temptations for false gossip and outright slander. While people have long written nasty things about others on bathroom stalls, these slurs were not available to mass audiences for possibly years to come.
There has been considerable discussion of cyberbullying. The news media have reported a number of cases, some with tragic outcomes. While students I studied mentioned this possibility, none could come up with concrete examples. The cases they described were usually cases of public nastiness and conflict between individuals, but not the systematic harassment of a weak individual by a stronger one.
Hacking is another activity in which the initiator tries to stay invisible. Some of this started out in teenagers' attempts to change their grades or school records, find out information about teachers, or play computer games for free. It was portrayed early in the digital revolution in the popular movie War Games (1983), in which a teenager inadvertently hacks into the Defense Departments missile system and nearly starts a nuclear war. Beyond schools, hacking has become a major industry carried out for political, commercial and criminal purposes.
Perhaps the most extensive kind of invisible activity is the collection of data about the minute activities of millions of individuals by government agencies and commercial interests. When revealed that governments were carrying out such surveillance there was loud protest and new rules and regulations. The far more extensive collection of data about people’s most private activities has gone on largely ignored when carried out for commercial purposes. Such invisible intrusions are justified in the name of “national security” or commercial expediency (that is, “giving people what they want.” These intrusions represent a major shift in the nature of our social structure and culture—and it is by no means clear that all of the consequences are benign.
The key point is that new digital technologies are creating new forms of social invisibility and changing the nature of postmodern culture. The changes often appear most obviously among, teenagers, who often first initiated or adopted the new practices. We need to avoid lapsing into nostalgia or assuming all of these changes are bad. Obviously the digital revolution has brought enormous benefits by making vast amounts of information easily available. The problem is that the immediate benefits are often apparent, while the longer-term costs are largely invisible. It may be that studying teenage culture is analogous to miners watching a canary—a useful way to see both the opportunities and the dangers that lay ahead.
You can read all the essays in this series here.
Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.