My current crop of students seem a bit more passive, slower to volunteer answers in class discussion, and ever so agreeable on controversial issues than I’m used to. They actually seem scared.
When I finally asked the 30+ seniors in my class what was wrong, they told me they were nervous about saying anything too contentious because they feared it would be broadcast across social media.
Are you kidding me? It’s come to that. They’re scared to voice an opinion in class because one of their peers might broadcast a goofy answer on Instagram or Twitter, attach a shaming hashtag, and ruin their fake, digital reputation.
These are students who have never known life before school shootings. They are also products of large suburban high schools that manage student conduct with policies that ensure one breach in behavior will forever be present on a permanent record. Along with fears of violence, they bring a “one mistake and you’re done” misconception with them into the college classroom.
Add to that a parental pressure to be perfect, the challenges of finding a job to pay down college debt, and the usual social stress of early adulthood, and it’s no wonder they are uptight in the classroom.
Digital connectivity seems to be ratcheting up the anxiety factor. These kids never unplug and it is slowly driving them crazy. Social media platforms may be even more powerful than the fear of violence.
One student admitted her phone was the first thing she reached for in the morning. The phone alarm wakes her up. She then immediately reads her email, checks who liked her posts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., takes a look at the weather forecast for the day, and reads a few headlines from The Skimm. After 3 to 5 minutes of this, she could comfortably get out of bed. She goes through the same process right before she goes to sleep and for that matter all day long. There is a constant flow of pictures, likes, and thoughts of whether or not to post something.
At age 22 it’s painful enough managing your real self, much less the addition of a full-time digital self. Over time, managing multiple selves adds a new dimension of stress that those who graduated from high school ten years earlier never had to deal with.
Conventional wisdom suggests that social platforms will expand along with their sneaky data gathering techniques. But, from what I can see from my students, we are reaching a saturation point. The issue facing this group of younger-end millennials is not shared exposure but instead how to strike a balance between privacy and their individuality.
Right now, these kids have no privacy. They live a high-stakes lifestyle that at any moment is subject to exposure by one sleep-deprived, thoughtless Instagram post.
While college students still have a middle-school attraction to social media, they are beginning to realize the consequences of managing multiple personalities with emerging adult responsibilities. At times, they are paralyzed with an inability to separate their addiction from their budding maturity and adult need for privacy.
Since multiple personalities -- whether digital or real -- are a sign of insanity, there must be a solution outside of a therapist’s office.
It’s called a full-time job.
Recent alum seem far less involved with social platforms than current students. A boss, a cubicle, and a 10 p.m. bedtime help diminish the social media habit. Being more protective of one’s real personality takes on greater importance than building contrived popularity by exposing fun-loving, party-seeking photos.
Having grown up in the television age, it is difficult to diagnose kids who are stricken by the fear of digital exposure. When I was 22 years old, I found great comfort mindlessly relaxing in front of a TV set enjoying the antics of All In the Family, MASH and MaryTyler Moore.
Today, few young adults find entertainment on a Saturday night CBS lineup. They seek it out on interactive social platforms where they cast themselves in a role that affects a story narrative. Since most don’t have the skills of a Hollywood scriptwriter or videographer, the ending is not always predictable or happy. It can result in lasting social embarrassment—a fear greater than color-coded threat levels.
By the time students graduate and enter the stresses of adult life, most grow tired of dealing with the hard work required to maintain a strong social media presence. They start leaving entertainment to entertainers and buckle down to realities of a 9 to 5 job. They also begin to recognize that college is really created for the young -- and so too is the extensive use of social platforms.
Bill Bergman is president and CEO of the Bergman Group and Instructor of Marketing at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business.