The Blanket Fort Society: Today’s teens are facing adulthood in an online world

By: Ben Louviere

On Nov. 19, 2009, I faced a computer screen at only 12 years of age. I began my legacy with the status:

“Wuzzup everybody, just got a facebook.”

Now, over six years later, I am 18 years old. I am a young man fully prepared to graduate from high school and take on the perpetual dauntingness that is “real life.” Yet, here I am surrounded by my peers who are much like I am — and for some reason, I can’t help but feel something peculiar about the way things are amongst myself and my fellow teenagers. So what’s the deal with teens these days?

Here’s the spiel: We’re stressed, we’re tired, we’re scared of the future, we get sad, we do good things, we do bad things, we have responsibilities, we have sex, we don’t have sex, we have mental disorders, we’re smart, we’re lazy and we’re social. However, that isn’t a teenage thing. These are the things that make adults feel like adults. For the most part, I have a general idea of what it’s actually like. I often wake up to a dreaded alarm and plod through my routine. I try to sleep enough, but I usually don’t. On the weekends, I see my friends and fall in love and feel the rush of life unfolding. I can shake your hand and ask you how you’re doing. I’m educated in aspects of higher-order thinking. I can tell you whether you are demonstrating a postconventional mode of reasoning or not. I’m sometimes faced with my own mortality, if I think long enough. Since the age of 12, I’ve now become much more like any adult. Everyone has grown through his or her teenage years into adulthood — however, there is one glaringly obvious difference that we have never encountered before. We’ve actually been on social media from the age of 12.

I’ve grown up in the Cedar Falls school system, and I’ve grown up with many of the same classmates on social media, too. Initially, we had Facebook. We were kids who, essentially, just wanted to play and interact and be our young selves. Social media was like this large blanket that we could crawl under and do more of what we wanted, away from everyone else. Then, the big shift to Twitter happened around 2012 — and that’s when we really started to establish things, creating a big blanket fort on this even newer platform, complete with couch cushions and all. One thing led to another, and now instead of playing Farmville, we’re discussing the Syrian refugee crisis and hashtagging our attendance at the Iowa caucus. However, one thing hasn’t changed. The blanket fort still exists. We’ve grown up inside of it for years now, and it’s ours. It’s huge. We’ve established an entirely new society within it. We have our own artists, ideas, speakers, listeners, supporters, movements, hierarchies and a history that is more vivid than ever before. We all remember the Vine of the girl getting hit by the shovel, and “Sharkeisha don’t kick her!” — those truly are among our historical relics. We have no constitution. We are the forefathers, and it’s weird. Despite how connected we are, when it comes to how it all works, much of it goes unspoken. So let’s talk about it.

“I’d say that a person’s goal in life, whether you want it or not, is to be higher up on the hierarchy and have a high rank. That’s just how people are,” junior Nathan Hoy said. “If you’re good at social media, then you find ways to put yourself over other people, and it builds you up as a person. It’s a whole new world that our generation can hide in and communicate and live in.”

Hoy then went on to detail his concerns about the implications of this new world. “You think you know people more, but you start to know them in a different way than if you were in the flesh. It’s just different. People could argue better or worse. Some things are great about it. You can interact with [people] on a whole new level, but some may argue that it’s bad because we don’t have that same intimacy of real life. It’s a whole different world.”

For some, living in the different world of teenage social media is simply not appealing, and there are many who choose to abstain from it. “I wouldn’t really know what my online social media persona would be. I guess that’s why I’ve stayed away from it,” said senior Trevor Brimeyer, who has never used Twitter. “I think people try to convey different personas — not who they actually are, but someone who they want to be on social media. You can’t judge a person based on what they tweet. You have to see who they are in person if you want to know what they’re really about.”

We’re accustomed to hearing of the perils such as these when it comes to teenage social media. Essentially, we construct the online version of ourselves in the way we see fit. But then, who’s to say it’s all bad? In contrast, senior Maddy Wright sees opportunities for truth and growth in online interactions. “To me, it’s a way to express myself and keep up with our changing generation. It’s also an awesome way to see others express themselves, and it kind of also helps shape me to be who I am. I learn new things on social media, I explore new interests, and it’s really awesome to see everyone doing it as well.”

Another aspect that Wright considers is the sheer number of people who can see these posts. “It is putting yourself out there for sure, and people have different judgements of you,” Wright said. “They can learn new things about you, too. It’s like letting people into your life, and letting them get to know who you are. I love social media for that part because it can let people know you even more than what they see on the outside.”

Navigating among these perks and pitfalls of Internet society is junior Ben Eastman, who has grown tired of the peer interactions and judgments. “I got bored of it,” Eastman said. “At first, I got Twitter so I could be cool like my friends, but it’s just annoying. I’ve kind of strayed away, and now it’s a place where I can get updated on stuff I want to see.”

Eastman sees the Internet as a realm where he can find a fulfilling place in pursuing his personal interests. “To me, it’s a way that I can get updated on culture and know what’s going on with music, fashion and sports and all that stuff. It’s making me into the person that I want to be in the future. It’s guiding me and teaching me every day.”

Along with those who choose to interact with and without their high school peers, there are some young adults who are using the social media society as a platform for important, progressive ideas. Senior Katarina Walther reflects on how the Internet has shaped her into the politically passionate individual she is today. “With some of the political campaigns, I didn’t know a ton of what was going on. Then going on Twitter, I could see people’s points of view — like tweets during the debates. I saw what different people were thinking and used that to springboard what my own ideas were — connecting and finding out about different movements that are going on all around the U.S. and getting myself involved.”

Sporting a hot pink shirt that reads “Vote Planned Parenthood Action,” Walther is also championing a cause of her own, advocating for women’s health awareness at the high school and beyond. Finding strength and support on the Internet, Walther sees this Internet age as an opportunity for a better social awareness. “That’s helped [my views] — with all these different things that people are saying, and then bringing them all together to figure out what my beliefs are.”

As a college town, our community revolves more heavily around young adults like these — consequently, around these new young adults who are immersed in the social media society. Attesting to the opportunity and importance that this provides is junior Henry Shockley. “I think if you look at [Cedar Falls], we’re a small portion of a whole that exhibits the same things. I feel like a lot of people in CF have the ability and opportunity to use social media as a platform. The main demographic is middle class white people. We’re sort of a reflection of the society, so we all have the opportunity to speak out and be heard. But then, our job is also to sit back and say, ‘listen to this person,’” Shockley said, alluding to the merit system of “likes” and “favorites” that many use to democratically support one another’s ideas.

Knowing firsthand of the empowerment that we young people have grown up providing to each other, Shockley came out as gay to the community of Twitter and Instagram just over one year ago. “Twenty years ago, the reaction to doing that would’ve been so different. I think it’s amazing how far we’ve come and how supportive we are, and just how open people are, and how easy it is to weed out negativity online. If someone were to comment on those things saying ‘Hey you’re a fag,’ I could just block them and know others are there and that most people aren’t that way,” Shockley said. “Before I came out, I would read a bunch of stuff, watch videos, listen to interviews and just see people talking about it. No matter how similar or different the experience was, it was just like ‘Hey, I know they’re out there and it’s OK. These people are OK, and I know I’m going to be OK.’ Even if it’s a cookie-cutter story like mine, where nothing really changed and everyone was happy, that’s still a good thing because we can be using the Internet to spread positivity.”

Social media is a part of who teens are today, and that’s common knowledge. The disconnect lies in the fact that it’s a new territory, exclusive to our generation simply because we were born into the time period of its takeoff. The blanket fort society where we once secluded ourselves is developing more and more each day, and we are becoming adults with our own ideas from inside of it. Our own society, which will continue to grow up alongside us, is continuing to evolve and establish in the information age with, often, a better-informed approach to things. Teens of today will, undoubtedly, become the society of tomorrow. There will come a time when the President of the United States will have used social media as a teenager. What will this society be? It may sound alarming to some, but this future society certainly appears to be a more dynamic, immediate, opportunistic, socially-conscious libertarian society where everyone can truly be heard.

Yet, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. We mustn’t forget Brimeyer’s distaste for the rampant Internet falsehoods. When combined with Hoy’s observations of the power-hungry nature of social media users, this society can, and often does, turn quickly into a slanderous, polarizing battleground. In the words of American writer Harlan Ellison, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion.” In a place where everyone can be heard, it is important that we learn how to correctly listen.

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