By Dr David Laing Dawson
In the ordinary course of development the adolescent years are ones in which the partially formed human being interacts with, bounces against, parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, music teachers, neighbours, peers, boys and girls, during supervised and unsupervised periods, strangers, competitors, bosses, rules, laws, expectations, in real time and real life, mostly from the same culture, speaking the same language.
And during these roughly ten years of negotiation the developing brain and personality of this young human being figure out at least some fundamental parameters of life. These include sexuality, value, worth, competence, control, power, responsibility, empathy, role, membership. Consciousness broadens, widens, and deepens.
People in this culture are fond of using the words “found himself”, or “followed her dream”, but really it is a process of genetic makeup being shaped by interactions with others. Real interactions. Real interactions, partial interactions, and even avoided interactions.
And always in those developing periods there have been opportunities for fantasy play and make believe, from role playing games to books to horror movies and dress up. And most developing humans have the capacity to tell the difference, to separate the make believe from the real.
Roughly 20 years have passed since video games and websites and forums and social media began their all encompassing exponential growth, with the games and forums and videos becoming more and more engrossing and “real”, and with the brief speak of texting plus emojis replacing the far more nuanced verbal and nonverbal communication of one human facing another.
And for some adolescents these have totally replaced those ten years of interacting in the real world, those ten years that allow the unfolding of identity, wishes, wants, friendships, sexuality, roles and purpose within the bounds of most community expectations in this real world.
There is a harmless side to it. It allows some of us to use this fantasy world as a way of more comfortably entering the real world: anime, comic, sci-fi and game conventions, dress up, animal costumes, Fortnite contests, online friendships.
But for others, that adolescent blank but yearning slate of questions about “sexuality, value, worth, competence, control, power, responsibility, empathy, role, membership” can be wholly filled with the primitive certainties of the virtual world. And these virtual worlds range from the medieval to the messianic, preaching entitlements, quests, wars, greed, conspiracies and revenge.
So brace for more in the future.
But in the meantime it behooves all parents and teachers and counselors and mental health professionals to try to pry the vulnerable teen away from his or her computer at least for part of the day, and help them find a place in the real world.