“A metaphor for social development exists through your screen” – but is a metaphor enough?
by Lucas Mannion
2020 has been a stressful year. Even as we are slowly returning to some kind of normality, many are experiencing emotional distress from lack of social contact, especially young people. In spite of this, I know that I’m not the only person who is apprehensive about going “back to normal” when coronavirus cases are still rife. There is one thing in particular I have been struggling to understand: why are we rushing to reopen schools in the midst of the pandemic?
I was lucky enough to be involved in an interview with Professor Ian Goodyer, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. From speaking to him, I learned that sending children back to school is far more important than I first thought. He summed up the most critical part of his message in a simple statement: “School is critical for social and cognitive development”.
While I understood the importance of education, I was not aware that school teaches children so much more than the three Rs. In fact, according to Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on reachwell.org, the structure and daily opportunities provided by the school environment are “essential for social and emotional learning, personal decision making, planning, self-regulation, creativity and physical activity”.
Professor Goodyer went on to explain that because we are not currently participating in a social world, social media has become our primary source of socialisation outside the home: “a metaphor for social development exists through your screen.” The idea of this worries me, as I question whether this substitute is as fulfilling as the real thing.
How much can you really learn about yourself if you’re only talking to others online? Being young is about experimenting and growing into yourself as a person. At school we make friends, get into relationships, and get into arguments. We try out different styles, hobbies, and labels, and use others’ reactions to gauge what works for us. The experiences we have while we’re young—both positive and negative—shape us and help us learn how to navigate the world.
While social media keeps us informed and connects us to one another, we don’t get to go through the same process of discovery with our peers as we would in real life. Professor Goodyer observed that in the current climate “younger people don’t see themselves existing outside of their mobile.” In other words, adolescents’ sense of identity is rooted in their use of the internet.
This was true even before the days of Covid. People my age share everything online: where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing, every single day. I’m certainly not exempt from this—my gut reaction whenever I enjoy or am interested in something is to put it on Instagram. We are constantly crafting idealised images of ourselves for our followers to absorb, fuelled by our desire to be liked.
If we are to continue growing, learning, and developing at a “normal” rate and be able to establish identities that are separate from our online personas, though I had been sceptical at first, after speaking to Professor Goodyer, I’ve come to feel the solution is simple: we really need to go back to school.
Lucas is 19 and a first year Psychology student as of September 2020. He is particularly interested in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and hopes to eventually work as a researcher in one of these fields.