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March 10, 2011

The New (and Ancient) Social Network

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You’re punished! Go to your room!!

For those of us who grew up during the Leave-It-To-Beaver or Brady-Bunch generations, these words resonate as an all-too familiar admonishment for the wrong doings of Theodore Cleaver, Jan Brady, and millions of other kids in America. It was the common penalty for the common misdeeds of the day. And being banished to the lonely solitude of one’s bedroom, isolated from one’s friends and family, was a powerful and effective consequence. Yet for today’s youth, being sent to one’s room would be met with no more than a shrug of the shoulders. In fact, most kids would probably be confused by their parents’ punishment choice of sentencing them to the most comfortable,
pleasurable, and socially connected place in their entire world – their own bedrooms.

By now it’s clich√© to state that today’s youth is the most socially connected and culturally aware generation in mankind’s history. The statistics bear out what we already intuitively know: these kids are wired in. Over 85% of teens have their own cell phones. Even for kids between ages 10 and 14, cell phone ownership exceeds two-thirds. Three-quarters of kids between the ages of 8 and 18 have TV’s in their rooms, and the rate of bedroom TV’s for kids under 12 is 55%, and growing fast. As for computers, we know that (at least) one-third of kids have their own desk-tops or laptops with Internet access. And that doesn’t count the “smart phones,” or “X-Box Live” systems (where you can merrily engage in simulated mortal warfare with a fellow teenager somewhere in, say, Europe).

Now, lest you think this article is about to offer some preachy lecture on poor parenting skills in the modern cyber era, let me reassure you, it’s not. After all, that would be a fantastic hypocrisy for someone like me since there may be no greater example of the trend towards electronic overkill than the bedrooms of my very own three teenage sons. In fact, our kids’ digital excesses are so daunting that I’m less worried about the common concerns of cyber bullying, lack of sleep and sedentary lifestyle issues than I am about merely entering their rooms without becoming entangled and electrocuted. To be honest, the last time I saw such overburdened electrical outlets was in Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation.

The New Social Networks

The startling reality is that our kids are most connected to their own friends and the outside world when they are sitting in their own bedrooms. The moment they step foot outside of their rooms, they become instantly less connected. It’s no wonder we have more difficulty prying them from their rooms than sending them to their rooms. This is a complete reversal versus prior generations who needed to emerge from the privacy of their rooms just to catch a glimpse of any current events at all. Dr. Ron Taffel, a prominent child psychologist, wrote a book on this very subject called, “The Second Family.” Its subtitle aptly summed up his topic: ‘Dealing With Peer Power, Pop Culture, The Wall Of Silence — And Other Challenges Of Raising Today’s Teens.’ (I wondered, with a title like that, how could he have not outsold the Gideon’s Bible?)

Taffel asserts – and has the statistics and clinical observations to back it up – that these technological advances have dramatically altered the sphere of influence for today’s youth. Specifically, whereas in prior generations the primary influences were parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and prime-time television; today’s primary influences are friends, pop culture, instantaneous news information, and…friends, again (in that order). It is this modern sphere of influence – mainly the friends and the pop culture – that Taffel calls “The Second Family.” As a result, the so-called “First Family” (that’s us) has been rendered less relevant to today’s kids. That’s because the kids pretty much have everything they need right at their fingertips (literally) while perched comfortably on their beds or desk chairs. They are at the helm of “Planet Youth,” as Taffel likes to call it, and they’re in complete control.

But, before we get too depressed, Taffel tells us that this is not a sociological disaster for the human race. It’s merely progress along the process of evolution. In fact, he offers a basic solution to our parental plight of becoming detached and irrelevant. And it’s simply that we should learn to form an “empathic envelope” around our kids; in other words, we should become technologically and culturally tapped into “their” world by using “their” Internet, watching “their” YouTube, listening to “their” music, and playing “their” X-treme sports. In doing so, while we might end up a tad offended and a bit bruised up, we would at least be part of “their” Social Network.

Technology may have redefined the meaning of “Social Network,” but the concept is as old as the human race itself. The desire to be connected to other human beings is a basic instinct of our species, and it is hard-wired into our behavior as social animals. We are unavoidably dependent upon one another for contentment, sustenance, and survival. We operate by the basic sociological principle that as social beings we are naturally driven to survive, and we realize that our survival is best achieved by operating cooperatively in groups. Thus we are destined to seek ways to work together in such groups – in families, clans, tribes, communities, nations – to better our mutual existence. And any threat to that group existence will be met with the reactive forces of the group. The instinct for group connectivity and group survival supersedes all.

It’s A Revolution

Technology has put a new face on how we “social animals” operate as cooperative groups in the modern era. Teenagers give us a contemporary close-up of how these tight groups – a.k.a. “Second Families” – can be formed without the teens hardly leaving the confines of their individual bedrooms. And the world is currently seeing other powerful examples of cooperative group dynamics being played out via technological means.

At the risk of elevating Mark Zuckerberg’s ego any higher (he’s the 30-year-old billionaire who founded Facebook, and was subject of the recent movie, “The Social Network”), there isn’t a political pundit alive who would deny the pivotal role that Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools have played in the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other revolutionary hot spots around the globe. As Newsweek recently observed, “in Iran the massive demonstrations of 2009 have migrated behind closed doors, where activists spread the word of resistance via instant message, satellite television, and what authorities fear most: social networking.” Young Iranian revolutionaries are not taking to the streets to effect historic change, they are taking to their keyboards to do so at home.

On the surface, comparing the American teenage “Second Family” to the revolutions in the Middle East seems trite if not absurd. But consider this: the common denominator for both phenomena is the power of “the group.” The so-called “social network” is not new to teenagers or revolutionaries. It’s always powered both forces. The microchip merely put a new face on it all.

So in all aspects of our existence we should respect the power of the group. And if we don’t heed that lesson, at least heed this one: when you want to hand out a punishment, don’t say, “Go to your room!”


Doug Rogers is a retired corporate executive who now devotes his time to speaking and writing about Nice Guys. http://niceguysfirst.com

2 Responses to “The New (and Ancient) Social Network

    avatar Jacob Dayeh says:

    Excellent Article, great information, I ejoyed reading it.

    avatar Mark Rowe says:

    Great Article. It’s been a long time sice I’ve read EVERY WORD of such a long piece! I think the twitter creators should be very proud of how their idea is enabling such historic uprisings of some of the most surpressed citizens of the world.

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