What does it mean to be a grownup in social media?

Lately, I’ve been wondering about what it means to be a grownup in a wired world. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not a moral line of thought; nor is it a question of good versus bad behaviours in the online space. As I’m turning 40 this year, I find myself less and less interested in various forms of self-help quotes, bathroom selfies, low-brow entertainment, wingtip sunsets, pranks, Instagram models, jet-set lifestyles, keeping up with reality superstars, LinkedIn networking threads, butt posing in yoga pants, baby pictures, vloggers making perfect cups of coffees, rampant Twitter debates, and personal vacation pictures.

Will we figure out what it means to be grownups in social media? Or will we remain infantilised kidults?

As a Decade of Novelty Wears Off

I turned 30 in 2009 and I feel as if I’ve since spent a decade consuming social media better suited for teens and 20-somethings. It has helped me keep a younger outlook on life and to stay reasonably up to date with new trends and platforms. And it has been somewhat fun to see otherwise mature, intelligent, and middle-aged friends doing duckface selfies in front of their bathroom mirrors — or weirdly flexing about their latest exercise session. But it seems the novelty of such phenomenons wears off.

I’m beginning to think that we’re a generation of grownups who doesn’t actually know what it means to be grownups in a social media world.

Some take the route of being omnipotent multi-experts who are fiercely opinionated about everything. Others decide to try and save the world by organising themselves around the central task of shaming others publicly. Some are just trying too hard to impress others by self-promoting their personal life choices. Others just opt-out from being participants; they go quiet.

In the scholarly and well-cited article The Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult and the Figure of Kidult, Jacopo Bernardini concludes:

“Being young today is no longer a transitory stage, but rather a choice of life, well established and brutally promoted by the media system. While the classic paradigms of adulthood and maturation could interpret such infantile behavior as a symptom of deviance, such behavior has become a model to follow, an ideal of fun and being carefree, present in a wide variety of contexts of society. The contemporary adult follows a sort of thoughtful immaturity, a conscious escape from the responsibilities of an anachronistic model of life. If an ideal of maturity remains, it does not find behavioral compensations in a society where childish attitudes and adolescent life models are constantly promoted by the media and tolerated by institutions.”

Undervaluing Life Experience and Maturity

The digital landscape seems to be reinforcing the Western idea of youth being equal to a higher standard. John Mellkvist, a Swedish PR consultant and futurist, is on a personal quest to raise awareness of the fact that the older part of the workforce is being constantly undervalued — which is both a big mistake and senseless waste of resources.

Among other things, Mellkvist is pushing local industry media to list “50 over 50” as a counterweight to all listings of junior marketing- and PR rockstars. I support his work wholeheartedly, of course, but I can’t help but to react strongly against the absolute absurdity of how anyone could even begin to underestimate professionals with tons of experience and powerful networks. The digital transformation is a huge challenge to tackle for everyone — despite age.

Growing up with social media from the start is actually less of an advantage than most people think; social media is only what we, the users, make of it. Getting sucked into a maelstrom of clickbaits and humblebragging isn’t only a strength. Shaping technology to work in favour of humanity will require a sizeable dose of maturity, character, and life experience. Simon Gottschalk, professor of Sociology, University of Nevada, writes:

“To me, it’s just one symptom of a broader trend of infantilization in Western culture. It began before the advent of smartphones and social media. But, as I argue in my book “The Terminal Self,” our everyday interactions with these computer technologies have accelerated and normalized our culture’s infantile tendencies.”

6 Levels of Emotional Maturity

But how do we better understand emotional maturity? It might begin with accepting that maturity doesn’t have to be exclusively correlated with age. In The Secret of Maturity by Kevin Everett FitzMaurice, a maturity progression of six steps is outlined.

Level 1: Emotional Responsibility

People who hasn’t yet reached this level of maturity tend to blame their feelings on external stimuli, such as other people, places, things, forces, fate, and spirits. Level 1 maturity means that you understand that your feelings are your choices.

Warning sign: When people get easily offended, especially on behalf of others.

Level 2: Emotional Honesty

People who hasn’t yet reached this level of maturity tend to hurt themselves emotionally because they haven’t yet learnt how they themselves must cope with their inner emotions. Level 2 maturity means that you undertand your own feelings and that you have the necessary coping mechanisms to allow for your true emotions instead of suppressing them.

Warning sign: When people publicly paint themselves as victims of their own feelings.

Level 3: Emotional Openness

People who hasn’t yet reached this level of maturity tend to be insecure in knowing how and when to share their feelings. Level 3 maturity means that you can be purposeful in venting your emotions with the intent to let them go because you’re done with them.

Warning sign: When people publicly overshare to wallow or are unaware that their sharing has the opposite effect than they were aiming for.

Level 4: Emotional Assertiveness

People who hasn’t yet reached this level of maturity tend to be fearful of asking others to respect their emotional needs. Level 4 maturity means that you take responsibility in clearly communicating your emotional needs with those who care about you.

Warning sign: When people allow others to make them feel bad, but are incapable of setting whatever boundaries they need.

Level 5: Emotional Understanding

People who hasn’t yet reached this level of maturity tend to have certain firm beliefs about themselves, beliefs that stem from ideas or principles, not true emotions. Level 5 maturity means that you are no longer forcing yourself into imaginary or convenient ideas about who you are and what you should feel.

Warning sign: When people are trying too hard to project a self-image which isn’t true and which only makes themselves feel worse.

Level 6: Emotional Detachment

People who hasn’t yet reached this level of maturity tends to still have certain self-concepts to defend or promote. Level 6 maturity means that you are totally detached from ego and nothing can no longer bother you beyond your control.

Warning sign: When people can’t truly appreciate living in a world where people make each other feel things, both good or bad.

Emotional Maturity in Social Media

“Industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”

― Aldous Huxley

I think of my own behaviour in social media as I ponder the varying levels of emotional maturity amongst other grownups in my various social graphs.

It’s a peculiar side-effect, that online self-publishing with zero friction has made it so easy to resort to immature and reactive behaviours.

My proposal is that we, at least those of us who think of ourselves as grownups, shift our participation in social media focus to three central pillars:

  • Meaningful connections. Use social media to establish and reinforce connections with other people that matters to you and base these connections on honesty, authenticity, and acceptance.
  • Exploratory learning. Use social media with an open mind to learn from other people’s experiences and insights. Explore the world and expand your horizons and do this together with likeminded people.
  • Creativity and usefulness. Express yourself creatively and strive to add real value to other people’s life. Leave self-promotion, bragging, and social status markers to those who are still trying to figure out their place in the world.
We belong to the first generation who matures into social media. There’s not yet a blueprint for what this means.

Photo by Amber Wolfe on Unsplash.

I think that some emotional maturity will make the online space a better place for everyone. What do you think?

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