‘Growing up tethered’?

Ms Sarah Boyle, Head of O’Connor House

In almost any given school yard one can observe the frenetic pace with which teens’ fingers swipe touch screens. Hunched over, surrounding them are eager eyes ready to view the latest YouTube video, newest photo upload on Instagram, or the incoming updates from Facebook. This is the norm of twenty-first century Australian teenagers.

The debate and research which is frequently published in the nation’s papers cautions adults about the constant use of mobile devices as a means of connection, with claims that ‘today’s under 30s live their lives “a mile wide and an inch deep”’ (Munro, 2013). Consequently, adults must reconsider the confiscation of mobile devices as a solution. Instead, adults must become informed and savvy in the developmental impacts this new norm has and, with this in mind, learn how to effectively engage with it.

Android phones, iPhones, iPads, tablets and similar devices have flooded the consumer market place meeting with popular demand. For adolescents, the most essential of the electronic devices is the mobile phone. Their popularity is explained by the various functions they embody. More than just a communication device, mobile phones can take photos, be used to listen to music and play games, and for social networking. Senior researcher, Amanda Lenhart, from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, asserts that ‘these technologies meet teens’ developmental needs’ in that ‘mobile phones and social networking sites make the things teens have always done — defining their own identity, establishing themselves as independent of their parents, looking cool, impressing members of the opposite sex — a whole lot easier’ (cited in Henley, 2010).


This information is hardly revelatory; any teacher observes this happening throughout the course of the school day. However, with the average age of first time mobile phone users being charted at 13 to 14 years of age and even younger (Griffin, 2011), are adolescents equipped to use the technological advantages of electronic devices to their benefit? American psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle (2011) cautions that the prevalence of electronic devices in teens lives has social and developmental implications.

Turkle notes an increasing trend where current adolescents are ‘growing up tethered’ (2011). In her book Alone Together, she states that ‘these young people live in a constant state of waiting for connection’ (2011, p. 171). While waiting, teenagers become habituated to constant connection. Turkle opines that, ‘in our time, if we can be continually in touch, needing to be continually in touch does not seem a problem … but an accommodation to what technology affords. It becomes the norm’ (2011, p. 177). Further to this, a 2013 national survey of 2000 16 to 30 year olds, commissioned by digital publisher Sound Alliance, found that participants suffered from FOMO ‘the fear of missing out’ and FONK ‘the fear of not knowing’, which consequentially drove them ‘to constantly check their phones for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter feeds and new emails and texts’ (Munro, 2013). Should this constant checking of electronic devices become the norm? What is the cost and what will be sacrificed?

Friendship and communication

The very nature of friendship and its key aspects has been redefined by this reliance on the mobile. Social media and electronic devices allow an unprecedented level of control to be exercised by teens in how they engage with others. Turkle uses an analogy of the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears to describe the nature of relationships in the digital age. Like Goldilocks who tried bowls of porridge and beds until she found the one that was ‘just right’, Turkle asserts that friendships are customised to be ‘not too close, not too far, but just right’ (2012). This is problematic in terms of adolescents learning how to communicate and navigate the ups and downs of relationships. Through the use of technology, teens can avoid the demands, the emotions and the unpleasant, messy moments inherent in human relationships. Yet, what is sacrificed is that adolescents may not have as wide a range of experiences to add to their social skills from this developmental stage of their lives.

Teens increasingly favour text messaging as the preferred means of communication with their peers. Communicating in bite-size grabs, some adolescents may boast that their communication skills are far superior to those of their parents, as they can multi-task by reaching several people with one text. Moreover, teens view texting as ‘a very useful way of undertaking one’s social obligations to stay in touch without spending time or energy on the encounter’ (Campbell, 2005, p. 5). While it certainly seems on the surface that teens have taken communication to a new level, they are actually distancing themselves from having a true connection with their friends by avoiding face-to-face communication. Turkle has found that teenagers ‘talk about their dread of conversation as they explain why ‘texting is always better than talking” (2011, p. 65). Data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that:

The volume of texting among teens has risen from a median fifty texts a day in 2009 to sixty texts for the typical teen text user. Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with fifty for boys the same age. (Brenner, 2012)

Texting certainly has its advantages in terms of planning and organising; however, for adolescents it is limiting key conversation skills that are the foundation to understanding relationships.

Professor Patti Valkenburg, from the University of Amsterdam’s Centre for Research on Children, Adolescents and the Media, highlights that modern communication tools assist adolescents to have control over their need for self-preservation, as well as to communicate their identity to others (cited in Henley, 2010). Teens have control over the information they can post about themselves and who, when and how they engage with others. For example, Facebook allows for groups where friends can communicate; however, a pitfall of this ability is that ‘it is common for friends to expect that their friends will stay available — a technology-enabled social contract demands continual peer presence’ (Turkle, 2011, p. 174). A general unspoken rule amongst teens is that the acceptable time lapse for responding to messages is 15 minutes. With this in mind, it can be concluded that the control that adolescents have within the confines of social media is true to a certain extent.

Quote3Another perceived benefit for adolescents is the control they have, via social media, over their individual online profiles. However, based on her research and discussions with American teens, Turkle (2011) comments on the anxiety and, indeed, panic that some teens feel towards their online profile and life. They worry about what photo to upload, what comment to post and who to be friends with. The online world is a very public place where anyone can view another’s profile. As a result, teens are spending increasingly more time creating the ‘perfect’ online profile that will meet the approval of the desired digital groups, which can in turn lead to greater social anxiety as to who they really are.

This social anxiety is concerning as ‘establishing a coherent identity is the fundamental psycho-social task of adolescence. Adolescents must establish a clear sense of who they are, what they are, what they believe in and where they are headed’ (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008, p, 139). Facebook and other social media networks have added another layer to self-discovery and identity that teens are compelled to work through. Therefore, it is important that adolescents are supported and guided by adults to balance the influence of online pressures.

As more research and studies are conducted to investigate the influence of electronic devices in adolescents’ lives, adults need to be mindful of the subtle changes impacting upon their development. Clear and firm rules regarding use of electronic devices at home is important, along with modelling of how these devices should be used. Of course, this is always easier said than done, however, teens require those firm boundaries to ensure they are safe online.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, we continue to inform students about appropriate use of electronic devices and maintain clear and transparent rules and expectations of their use while at School. Teaching our girls about the pitfalls of technology will equip them with necessary online cautions. This, together with more traditional aspects of schooling such as face-to-face communication, will assist students to build confidence and resilience ‘offline’. Educating young people about the importance of balanced interactions in various ‘worlds’ is essential in preparing them to be able to contribute and engage meaningfully beyond school.



Brenner, J. (2012, June 27). Pew Internet teens. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/April/Pew-Internet-Teens.aspx

Campbell, M. (2005, October 28). The impact of the mobile phone on young people’s social life. Paper presented at Social Change in the Twenty-first Century Conference, Carseldine, Brisbane. Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/3492/

Griffin, M. (2011, May 17). Peer guide for parents. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/life/peer-guide-for-parents-20110516-1epy6.html

Henley, J. (2010, July 16). Teenagers and technology: ‘I’d rather give up my kidney than my phone’. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/16/teenagers-mobiles-facebook-social-networking

Munro, K. (2013, April 20). Youth skim surface of life with constant use of social media. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/youth-skim-surface-of-life-with-constant-use-of-social-media-20130419-2i5lr.html

Subrahmanyam, K., & Greenfield, P. (2008) Online communication and adolescent relationships. The Future of Children, 18(1). Retrieved from http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/docs/18_01_06.pdf

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together. New York: Basic Books.

Turkle, S. (2012, February). Connected, but alone? TED Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html

Published 30 August 2013

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