Self-Discovery in the Digital Era

When I began teaching seven years ago, I felt compelled to provide a longwinded explanation about social networking to my high school journalism class. During a lesson about feature news, I assigned my students to read a Globe story I wrote about the grandfather of social networks, Friendster (founded circa 2002). That afternoon I returned home from school to find my MySpace inbox flooded with friend requests. All from my students.

For me, in my mid-twenties at the time, the social network was a mere novelty — at best an awkward lifeline back to college. Then, suddenly, a few months into my teaching career — and with privacy settings still in their infancy — I found myself scrubbing my (already pretty tame) profile clean of any incriminating mark. Blithely ignoring my students’ messages, I returned to my classroom the following day with the hope that my squeaky clean profile had restored my credibility as a goodly educator.

Now I teach English to seventh graders, where we study Shakepeare’s play The Tempest in which the heroine, Miranda, famously proclaims with bewilderment: Oh brave new world!

Not long ago, I asked my students to consider the rate at which our society’s communication is growing in complexity, and how the relationships between characters in The Tempest might have changed if Facebook and Twitter had existed within the play’s Renaissance setting on a remote Mediterranean island. Would the teenager Miranda be “friends” with her sorcerer father, Prospero?

Several students cite a detail about a Neapolitan princess’s residence in Tunisia, and the years it would take for a letter to reach her there, causing her to be slighted as the rightful heir to her father’s throne.

One student, disagreeing that social networking has improved our lives, asks: “But if you knew it would take years before someone could read your message, don’t you think you would put more thought into it? How could you call a status update complex?”

I tell them about a group of freshmen I overheard discussing their parents “unfriending” them on Facebook. One student explained that she and her father first became “friends” when she was in fifth grade and that her recent online activity made him want to freeze the moment in time. There was an unspoken poignancy in the girl’s giggles that recalled the identity struggles I had with my dad as a teenager in the 1990s.

Adults and children alike seem inextricably intertwined in this murky social network. The difference for today’s kids is that while we were able to discover who we are without it, they are crafting their images within it. And many of them seem to harbor a fractured sense of self as a result: The online self and the offline self.

I am still surprised when my students invite me into their social networks. My stock reply is: “Try again: [insert year of high school graduation].” My sole exception (for a former student who had left my school) instantly culminated in a status update of: “Ms. Mahoney’s my friend. Swag,” and a 20+ comment thread between other students hypothesizing about why I shunned their requests. (I would provide a definition of “Swag,” but my students claim there are no words — you either have it or you don’t.)

Humor aside, I occasionally worry that their attempts to friend me online could signal some developmental need that I am neglecting, or maybe it’s just a sign that what’s second nature to them isn’t to me. Either way, in this rapidly evolving world of social networks, educators and parents should consider that setting and enforcing reasonable boundaries might also be tempered with finding ways to make our digital selves more accessible to kids. In the “real” world, we try our best to model appropriate behavior and to show we care through forging connections, but when it comes to the virtual word, it almost seems inappropriate to even co-exist. If we cannot find a way to remedy this, our kids will have to learn to fare for themselves online, and we might miss a critical opportunity to guide their social and emotional evolution into adulthood in the process.

In the final scene of The Tempest, the king Alonso observes:

This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of. Some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge

Many times throughout history, the increased complexity of technology has suddenly called our sense of humanity into question. For a moment it feels like a maze. But when we finally recover from this confusion, we often emerge with a better understanding of ourselves.


A former correspondent for The Globe and blogger for the Boston Teacher Residency website, Kellyanne Mahoney teaches English Language Arts at Boston Latin Academy. She is also a mother of a three-year-old and a coach for the Boston Debate League.