Technology and Emerging into adulthood
Jeffrey Arnett, psychologist, in his book “Emerging Adulthood – the winding road between the late teens to the twenties” describes the social, cultural, and economic factors which have created a new stage of development for individuals who have to coexist with the increased complexity of living in industrialized, modern nations. Arnett reports that “There has been a profound change in how young people view the meaning and value of becoming an adult and enter the adult roles of spouse and parent.” Arnett also discusses in detail how the relationships we have with work, family, love, and society has changed in modernity for those who are eighteen to thirty years old.
Moments of inspiration, a drive to search for meaning, the imagination of a better life and your place in the world are all aspects which Arnett describes as important for this time and stage of development for those who are eighteen to thirty years old. Even in the video I posted above, Tom Burns comments on how much he feels he has grown, not only in physical means, but in finding himself and his own lived experience of being his own person while online. Many older people might chuckle when Tom describes the differences which have occurred since 2007, said almost ironically that now he’s so much more of an adult at twenty one. This, by Arnett’s account, shows that as an emerging adult, there exists in a space where all the answers aren’t known, and all of the knowledge isn’t there, but the motivation to persevere through adversity still exists. People are looking for themselves through chaos. I’m curious into how technology, particularly the Internet, impacts that ability to grow and develop into an adult. The most striking thing to me is that that Tom comments on the existence of a timeline, consisting of his own blog videos and posts, which he himself can reflect on in order to best understand what has and has not changed in his life as he’s moved forward and aged. Tom relates himself as actually creating an identity as he moved forward, commenting that he would watching his old videos and “I could look at them, and just know it wasn’t me”. This to me signifies that Tom not only has created a narrative about growing older, but has a narrative about his online presentation that he has matured. I look back on many of my days as a troll online, and realize that I too, would prefer to change the narrative of what was happening for me at the time I was using the Internet to find myself.
This isn’t the only example of how people see time and growing up that I’ve found online.
Obviously, cultural and societal norms and mandates play a role in this Garfunkel and Oates parody. But it does illustrate some of Arnett’s theories, particularly the fact that at twenty nine, the woman expresses a free flowing and open sense of the world, and at thirty one, her peer is somewhat set in the fact that her possibilities are almost out of reach. Arnett has some more direct observations about the stage in which people are eighteen to thirty years old and how they differ from later stages of life.
1) It is an age of identity explorations, trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work.
2) It is an age of instability.
3) It is the most self-focused age of life.
4) it is the age of feeling in between, in transition, neither adolescent or adult.
5) It is the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.
I get curious when I imagine my own lived Emerging Adult experiences, my own relationship with time and the Internet, and my own phenomenological experiences of living through all five of these observations that Arnett is attempting to make about the stage where people become true adults in modern culture. It’s obvious that time is a factor in how culture perceives an issue, as we are lead to believe that a massive difference exists between twenty nine and thirty one years old for women.
Arnett describes that people who are in the Emerging Adulthood stage of development experience and judge adulthood as “ accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and financial responsibility”. Likewise, we see how the increased significance of the internet has created a space where all three of these ideas are tested – many people use the Internet or technology as a way to either enhance or sidestep responsibility for their own lives, as a means to field and research questions which they could not make independent decisions about, and as a place both to use and make large amounts of money and other social capital. Even though Arnett wrote in detail about the lives of many Silicon Valley twenty – somethings, we can see that even ten to fifteen years later the intensity and culture of the Internet continues to multiply and evolve. It’s my opinion that the Internet has created the space where time has itself changed, and not in the ways which we’ve already explored.
Shocked into presence
Time seems to flow differently online. When I see the relationships that people create with time when using the Internet in my social work practice and personal life, multiple possibilities come up. Sometimes, it’s as if time is sped up, as technology is making things more easy and available to do. At other times, time seems like it’s stuck – as something can be repeated and become a time sink for hours, days, weeks, or years. Douglas Ruskhoff, author of “Present Shock- When everything happens now” phrases it as “If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.” (p. 3) Presentism, Ruskhoff argues, is the fact that due to the increase of the influence of the Internet and technology on our day to day existence, that we are seemingly stuck into the present focus of what is happening exactly in the moment in relation to the technology in our lives. This type of forced perspective is not only potentially detrimental, but requires an impressive amount of mental and physical energy to embrace and even comprehend. We see it’s influence in the fact that we have developed not only a cell phone culture in the past ten years, but a smart phone culture – miniature computers which connects us almost like an omnipresence to the Internet.
Ruskhoff writes –” Our digital technologies empower us to make so many choices about so many things. But the staccato nature of digital choice also thwarts our efforts to stay fully connected to our greater throughlines and to one another. Every choice potentially bring us out of immersive participation and into another decision matrix. “ (p. 111) Ruskhoff goes on to relay a story of his trying to pay attention to his daughter, and being interrupted by his phone, and the fact that he chooses not to answer the phone, but that he still had to exert mental energy and remove presence from his daughter to actively make the decision.
When hearing someone express their present state as an inability to remain in choice about what they so passionately want to do, I am curious into how this type of lack of choice impacts one’s ability to actively search for their adulthood. Is it possible that Emerging Adulthood has formed because the added complexity of living with technology literally takes “that much” longer to integrate and become responsible and mindful into one’s own passions and needs? I also think of the mental health clientele I work with on a regular basis, and how much time has influenced their cases and their development into adulthood. If we see time as a commodity, I definitely have seen cases were my ability to advocate for someone was to pull them out of situations where time was being used ineffectively or inappropriately, and create a situation where time was much more on their side. Maybe I can create a better understanding of time if I shared one of those stories.
Case study – Rick and Grand Theft Auto 5
Few things compare to the majesty and impact to video gamers anywhere then the release of a new GTA game. This may seem like a joke to some, but to any social worker that works with children, children at heart, the easily influenced, people who spend excessive amounts of time with technology the event of the release of GTA 5 could have been something equivalent to a major hurricane or earthquake. Like an earthquake, many people had to quickly run outside of their homes, but this time it was to actually get the game and obtain the ability to play it in their video game systems.
How serious was this release? Three Staten Island teenagers being arrested for impersonating police officers to get the game early serious. How intense are the fans of this game? Intense enough to murder for a copy. How much money was spent on the first day buying this game? Eight hundred million. That’s not a mistyping – sales of Grand Theft Auto 5 were almost a billion dollars in one day.
What does this have to do with growing up in a timeless virtual world? Well, If you had considered Grand Theft Auto 5 a waste of time, then you and Rick might not have seen eye to eye.
Neat, clean and organized isn’t Rick’s thing. A six foot four inch, three hundred pound thirty one year old Trinidadian-American man, Rick had not left his house for at least a month. Most of his time was spent in front of a array of several television screens, computer monitors, a laptop and a constant stream of Marijuana smoke. Bags of fast food, cereal, and wasted lotto tickets lined his outer walkway and patio, and a conga line of cigarette butts and soda cans dotted the hallway to his living room. Rick’s lifestyle would be best defined as “pants optional”.
Despite this, Rick’s self acclaimed “pimping skills” had landed him a live at home forty three year old girlfriend that tolerates his “do it later” attitude. Her lack of contentment was obvious whenever she would be seen yelling at her long time beau due to his lack of hygiene or care for their apartment. Section eight (the title of the NYC housing program for the poor) had treated both of them well, even if she wasn’t exactly on the lease.
His greeting when I visited – hearty hello, a drunk giggle and a toss of a video game controller whenever I walked in. I was lucky if he was wearing clean boxers, and for the days that the apartment wasn’t a wisp away from a dense London fog of marijuana smoke. The first time I visited – “Yeah KIDDDDDDDDD, you’ve smoked before….. never had a counselor who was in here so long without a contact high!” He wasn’t exactly right, but that’s my business, not his. His assumption that I was tolerating the dense second hand marijuana stench was quite the sign of his addiction and lack of insight into how out of touch he was from someone who didn’t smoke. Lunch was White Castle that day, with a Big Gulp from Seven-Eleven, and I joking brought a little fan to blow away the smoke the next time I visited, much to Rick’s delight.
Rick’s visits were never boring, and he was a reminder that some of my best therapy can happen in that space behind the blinking light of a wireless controller, and away from it. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had jobs as a summer counselor, a play therapist and I’ve spent dozens of hours engaging children with video games. It’s a little different when it’s a full grown man, and when most of the people in his life despise the fact that he prefers the to wear his controllers out instead of wearing a clean shirt. Time was virtually standing still for Rick – he had not worked since a summer job in high school, and a number of rapid succession hospitalizations when he was twenty three years old landed him with an Assertive Community Treatment team, meaning that treatment came to him. This only exaggerated the fact that Rick spent days at a time playing video games, ordering in food or watching movies on the internet.
I never really thought of Rick outside of that small eight by twelve room, mostly because he refused to go outside. Dreams of Bloods, Crypts, the FBI and CIA usually crept up whenever I’d offer quick escape down to the McDonald’s, or he would just not open the door at all, making it hard whenever a nurse or the psychiatrist had to give him a visit. “Send Peter, he knows how to roll.” He’d choke out the words between puffs over the phone, giving my coworkers a reason to giggle. Rick also thought that the older members of the ACT team judged his time with technology too much. “They are O. L. D. man! I’m up here on the Internet and they’re telling me to get a job? Where do you think Bill Gates is at? He made the computer his JOB!”
Imagine my surprise when I see Rick show up randomly at the office of the ACT team.
This wasn’t a case of plain – “Hey man, you actually make it!”
Rick is on the short list of people who are welcome at the ACT team office anytime, regardless of schedules, meetings or anything else. Regularly boundaries, mostly finely worded, closely crafted rules; backed up by the terrifying eighteen foot tall fences of the psychiatric hospital, would gently nudge away any clients who wanted to visit us at our home base. This wasn’t our choice, as transitioning people included them coming to our offices as they would attend an outpatient mental health clinic, and many people just refused. It’s a strong sight for anyone to have the gumption to step past the police guarded doors to enter what many considered their prison. Rick was so unexpected a guest, that we would beg him to come in, a sign of progress – a mission based in motivational interviewing and supportive counseling. It was a shining beacon that we could point out to our Chief of Service if we could get anyone from that short list to show up to the office instead of having to only see them in the community. It was even more amazing when not my boss, but her boss bounced into my office with a confused look on his face.
“Rick is here, Rick is sober, Rick is dressed. Plus five points, Peter.”
“You’re joking?!?” I didn’t ask him to come today. I didn’t want the boss to exactly know that.
“He’s in the day room. How’d you do it? Don’t tell me, keep up the good work!”
I swiftly turned the corner into the computer room where Rick had calmly and confidently placed his legs up on a table. An unlit blunt was at his lips, and he had very clearly dolled up nicely. His calm demeanor watching the television, unaware of my entering the room, became apparently unlikely as he was rocking softly and twiddling this thumbs. It was immediately evident that Rick was out of his element.
“Hey. buddy…. not to say I’m not expecting you….. but dude, I really wasn’t expecting you! Any emergencies come up?” Rick snapped his head back as I put my hand on his shoulder.
“I’m only 2 days late, KIDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD” Rick’s trademark drawn out, high five inspiring thrill emanated across the hallway. I returned with a high five placed at a 60 degree angle, hard enough to leave a smack which reverberated off the walls and opened doors all across the unit. It could of been a gunshot, and it was not even painful when he cupped my fine fingers in his massive grip. He bumped shoulders, and he knocked even my heavy frame back a half a foot. “We gotta roll, I’m not going into the store to pick this GTA 5 shit up without a MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. That shit’s deep!”
I snorted. I couldn’t help it. His blaring of my title, his excitement and the flurry of words that started to come out about the game were quite impressive. If I didn’t know him, I’d say he was manic. This mountain of a man, he was caught in between the space between his paranoia and his passions. It was obvious to me that this was where he put his heart, soul and time. This piece of technology looked so good, so incredibly nice, that he actually left his home (in broad daylight) and took the five mile bus ride to the psych center. He then expected a lift to the mall in order to stand in line with me to buy what is probably going to be the game of the year. Is this the most appropriate use of services? No. Is this the most amazingly bad (until it’s good) story of a client stepping out of his comfort zone for something he is really passionate about? Yes. That, I could live with. This was both a good way for both of us to spend our time.
The car ride was another interesting step. With recent traffic on the highway, I was used to the potholed streets. Rick wasn’t.
“Oh shit man, don’t go too fast! Them bumps, the cops see that shit, they going to get me!”
“Rick, let’s breathe a little. Think, in through the nose, out through the mouth. I drive all the time, it’s going to be fine.”
“I fuckin’ hope so.” He nervously uncoiled the blunt he was so purposely saved for the post game celebration. By the time we got to the mall, it was a nub, as he had let it slowly dribble outside of the car window, almost like leaving crumbs for the trip back. “I know you can’t get caught with this shit, you’re a PRO-FESS-ION-AL!”
Again, I laughed, and so did he. By the time we reached the mall, he had calmed down considerably. We walk past food courts and restaurants, and I purposefully sniffed the air around several of the kiosks. This is a man whose priorities and time weren’t spent admiring the outside world, but the splendor of the mall were too much for even him.
“You believe in one stop shopping man? When’s the last time you didn’t eat your girlfriend’s cooking or some White Castle?”
He happily obliged. A sit down restaurant, with forks and knives. After we filled our stomachs, and refilled our sodas several times, making unique mixes each time, until his eyes trailed off again.
“My pops would take me there to get my hair cut as a kid. Is it safe?”
“Let’s go check it out.”
25 minutes later, the man had cut off 2 years of his life and honestly was looking better then me. There was a child like glee in it for him. His hair was typically a messy, fashionable afro, but today, for the first time in years he had a proper haircut and shave. These weren’t the priority when his main attraction was a screen.
One more stop before the video game store, and it was unexpectedly easy. A quick tug, almost whipping around a man fifty pounds and eight inches my superior into the pharmacy for a tooth brush, toenail clipper, hair brush and a three pack of Listerine and toothpaste. Like a little boy ready for school, he carried the bag as he rushed towards the goal, and I realized I had already reached mine. He walked in, whispering ” You chill here, I’m taking this solo.” A smile, a nod, and a long wait outside. “I got the last one, I had to whisper to the guy behind the counter, you know so no one hears; they be listenin'”.
I just nodded. “Let’s roll, you deserve to enjoy that at home ASAP.”
A smile flashed back. The car ride home, he was stressed even less, and spent a good amount of time reading the back of the case and booklet that came with the video game. Slowly, painfully slow, he left the car and looked back as I pulled back into traffic. The last I saw today of Rick was the big breathe he took when he fumbled for his keys to his apartment while his girlfriend opened the door for him from the inside.
Demanding less and getting more from technology
I’ve heard the arguments for and against video games. Like any tool, I think they can be of benefit, or they can be abused. Rushkoff’s example of the ringing cell phone makes me consider how much Rick was spread out, both mentally and emotionally, when he both had his symptoms of paranoia and multiple screens and devices at his whim. I’d also like to step back from that argument for a moment and think of the fact that something, for some reason, inspired a man to take himself out of his comfort zone and allowed me along for the ride. I feel that despite Rick being out of Arnett’s demographic age wise, that we can still see many of those emerging adulthood themes in his lifestyle, including the self focus, the age of possibilities, in thinking that the computer could get him a job, and the age of instability, where Rick wasn’t able to hold down a job or life focus other then his relationship with technology. Rick took a step towards adulthood, even if it just meant going for a shower and preparing to come see me, or even by taking my suggestions while at the mall in order to better take care of himself. Remember that Arnett defines moving towards adulthood by these types of choices, being able make independent decisions, being fiscally responsible, and taking accountability for one’s self. While these things needed to be facilitated by a “mental health professional” as Rick put it, he still choose those things as priorities, even if it was in relation to the way he spent his time inappropriately. Rick was able to put his presentism into check, even for a limited time, with the help of myself and his own drive towards following his passions and goals.
I’m also curious if Rick could make the timeline narrative that the Tom Burn’s video I started this discussion with did, and what it would look like. How does Rick’s mental health issues evolve and change his ability to coexist with technology that supports his actual living? He’s obviously into the present time, and not concerned about the future for the most part. What could be done about Rick’s relationship to the time he spends in the present and his ability to coexist with his passions and goals? As a Social Worker, I used this situation as an starting point with Rick to focus less of his time and intent on the present world of technology, and more on the future, as by Rick’s definition of what success was. This look into how he wanted to spend his time, and a mindfulness into how he was trying to exist within it, was pivotal into creating the place where Rick could explore new experiences and roles as an individual and move more towards being an more satisfied adult. Through my supportive nature and community based practice I gave Rick back a sense of significance to the time he was spending, even if only for a short while.
What is exactly going on here?
At the same time, Rick shows us if it wasn’t for the technology creating this time-commodity, we wouldn’t need to use the technology which generally speeds up our other aspects of our life. Rick didn’t want to invest the time or energy dealing with the anxiety of leaving his home for a burger, so technology was used to order one online, or he gave someone cash in order to go pick it up. You have to spend something in order to get something, even if that means spending our own presence, cash or time in order to replace the our own physically doing something. Time is always a commodity that seems in short supply. How many people work in a social work agency who wish more attention was paid to a certain aspect of treatment? Our use of time not only is a commodity when existing in virtual spaces, but the inspiration for investment in further technological development to continue the cycle of speeding up technology. Could this demonstrate attention being paid to the wrong aspect of development of a concept or practice professionally as well? Who needs something that can do something faster, but wrong? It seems that this dilemma was something Rick was living with in his day to day life and experience of the Internet. Rick always was looking for something new and exciting to use to enhance his technological experience, and this time the GTA 5 was the target. I was able to show him an alternative way to spend his time, creating more of a choice and a situation which could benefit all of this aspects of life, not just the one strategy he had chosen. How could this type of conceptualizing time help us live better lives both with and without our technology?
Rick makes me curious into how time does become more of a commodity if we have the technology that demands it from us. Rick made a big sacrifice coming to the office, paying time and effort in ways which he wasn’t accustomed to doing. I knew I had to honor that the second I heard that he was awaiting a session in the day room, and it inspired me to go over and beyond my typical role as his therapist. Surprisingly, this realization was so instantaneous that I think the human factor might still be quicker and more present then the technological factor, which means that social workers are not going to lose their jobs to technology anytime soon. Despite this, our roles, skills and clinical expectations are still going to transform significantly in the upcoming future, and we need to create the knowledge coexist with technology when this transition does occur.
At this point, only time will tell how we will do so.