Young people online

Peter Loebell

“Whether something happens out in the street or on Instagram and co” simply no longer makes any difference today, “they are part of our social life and so we are on them,” so says Robert Campe, a sixteen-year-old pupil from Hamburg, in his bestseller What´s App Mama? For young people in the twenty-first century it is unexceptional: smartphone, computer and tablet are things that any “normal” teenager in 2017 has available. A mobile phone without Internet access, on the other hand, is totally useless. The devices are used to watch films (streaming), listen to music, for online shopping or online gaming, but above all for permanent social contact.

If in previous generations it was television, today it is the Internet with its social media which determines the daily routine of young people. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning, a quick glance at the smartphone determines whether new messages or pictures have arrived overnight. Here messenger services like WhatsApp, which are used to exchange brief messages, are completely indispensible.

For the youthful owners of a smartphone it is quite natural to be online almost all the time and permanently to send messages back and forth via WhatsApp. Students take it for granted that today they will receive a message “at least every five minutes”; they have to force themselves into a longer attention span and frequently have the feeling that they can work best “under pressure”.

When young people wish to inform themselves about what is going on in the world there are short message services such as Twitter which appear incredibly practical “because we don’t drown in information but simply get a brief overview – just like skimming the headlines in a daily newspaper,” Campe writes. Also important were the video clips on YouTube which constantly show new scenes from all spheres of life – “from fashion, make-up, lifestyle through comedy und Web series to knowledge, technology and computer games”. Campe admits that he himself follows 182 YouTube channels with greater or lesser consistency, whereby this is generally spread over the whole day.

The Instagram portal, on which users can post personal photos,  is also regularly called up by him – once an hour. All young people of his age group had “already got lost at least once in the Instagram universe”. Pictures and about five-minute-long videos are preferred to longer written contributions in blogs since “YouTube and Instagram give us the same information in compact form”.

Why in this context it becomes ever more difficult to distinguish truth from fake news is explained by the expert in Internet technology Catarina Katzer in an interview on the German “Tagesschau” current affairs programme broadcast on 20 May 2017: “We get used to short bites because we have to jump from one piece of information to another. We know that we only read about ten to fifteen percent of what we call up online. Everything else falls into a black hole, as it were. We become ever more superficial in how we process the information. We no longer question things in our head. I no longer take in the information, compare it in some way and consider whether it might be true or not.”

We are looking for a quick overview of current events instead of elaborately concerning ourselves with a complicated thought or a subtle argument. This is about social recognition, our own positive image, the quick exchange of information and opinions. Above all, it seems important not to miss anything. We can show at any time to a wider public or our narrower circle of friends which news, images or videos we like or dislike. All imaginable information is available at all times. But mostly it is about having fun or being witty without there having to be a deeper meaning behind it; and playing games on the smartphone is primarily about diverting ourselves.

Staging not experience

When our own experiences are to be communicated through a medium, the users of digital media must as a rule record them in writing or images. It therefore suggests itself that they should take extensive photographs of impressive experiences, for example a meal with others in a restaurant. Campe describes how after the pizza and pasta has been served, all the family members must wait until the daughter has photographed the meal from all conceivable angles. By the time she has still climbed up on a chair to record the exquisitely laid out table from above, the food has grown cold. The diversity of simultaneous sensory experiences which provide the comprehensive experience of eating, has lost its meaning in the face of such a staging.

When the postmodern lifeworld largely consists of posed images and staged news in which perception is reduced to seeing and hearing, the rest of the body remains excluded as an organ of resonance. But the experience of our own body in connection with the other senses forms the basis for the perception of external reality. For the senses of taste, life, self-motion and balance are always involved when we identify objects in our environment.

In Rudolf Steiner’s view, the interaction between these senses and visual or auditory perception gives rise to our consciousness of reality. We always experience objects with more than one sense. For example, in perceiving the external world with the sense of sight “our own existence is always also hazily experienced”. What is seen calls forth the mental image of an object and at the same time the sense of balance communicates an unconscious sense that what is seen actually exists. Such interaction is nowadays described as “sensory integration”; according to Steiner it forms the basis for the relationship to reality of human action.

The physical senses not only enable us to distinguish between reality and fiction, they also influence our emotional and mental view of the world.

Thus studies on “embodied cognition” have noted that people with an upright posture and smiling face remember positive experiences from their own life more easily than test subjects with a slumped posture and negative facial expression. Our arm movements also apparently influence our feelings and attitudes, depending on whether we move our hands towards us or away from us.

Screens  create insecurity

It is important for an understanding of reality and a secure judgement to experience our own body. In his book Resonance, the sociologist Hartmut Rosa poses the question “how the nature of the human ... relationship with the world changes when the screen become the defining medium in almost all relationships with the world”. Participation in the world which is largely restricted to staring at a screen could make the user increasingly insecure – with two possible consequences: either they radically restrict their use of digital media and risk losing their social contacts. Or they could be tempted to compensate for their growing insecurity by absorbing even more information. This leads to the compulsive fear of missing something and losing contact with the network of reference persons on the Internet.

And Robert Campe confirms: “I couldn’t say why it is so mega important for me to read every message immediately. Perhaps it is some kind of cultural thing, that for us teenagers it is almost part of life to be available and respond as quickly as possible.” Because he is used to quickly registering every new bit of information and immediately commenting on it, without the totality of his sensory experiences being involved, the process always remains dissatisfying and has to be overlaid with ever new stimuli. This creates a dynamic of acceleration which Hartmut Rosa describes as follows in his book Alienation and Acceleration: “Space almost seems to ‘constrict’ due to the speed of transport and communication.”

When an unmanageable quantity of information is permanently available, this prevents us from exercising our own thinking through which our life as a whole can be provided with meaning. Because only through our own thinking activity is it possible for the phenomena of the world to be inwardly reproduced and grasped in their meaning. Alongside critical thinking and problem solving, one of the core competences required by the radically changed lifeworld of the twenty-first century is information competence, “that is the specific selection, critical evaluation and appropriate use of information”, as the Stuttgart media professor Frank Thissen puts it, as well as the ability to handle social media responsibly. This doesn’t just mean being able to handle the new technologies but also being able to make an all-round judgement on the basis of general sensory experience. It is probably precisely the apparent “media competence” in the sense of the unreflected use of communication technologies which prevents young people from understanding the new technology and applying it responsibly.

Only those who perceive their own body can encounter others

The subconscious perception of our own body not only forms an essential foundation for understanding reality but also for the encounter with other people. In imitating others, small children make use of their whole body as an organ of resonance for the inner attitude and emotional gestures of the person they are watching. Embodiment research has shown that the resonance relationship between people is not restricted to neuronal processes. For the perception of movements or the observation of the facial expression of another person directly leads to the activation of our own muscles, as the education researcher Christian Rittelmeyer has noted. When we see a sad or happy facial expression we automatically activate those facial muscles which have to be used to produce the facial expression we have observed. Imitation is thus based fundamentally – also in adults – on an outwardly hardly visible activity of our own body before a conscious feeling arises through the neuronal system.

Modern research results confirm references by Rudolf Steiner who as long ago as the early twentieth century described social sensory modalities through which we can perceive the thoughts and the I of the other person: the perception of the thoughts of the other arises through inner activity in which I imitate their thinking activity while shutting out my own ideas.

This process is not restricted to a particular region of the body or, indeed, the brain. My whole body and all my sensory organs are also involved in the perception of the other self. In this way I experience my counterpart not as the sum of individual characteristics but as a whole. Against this background, the real, interest-led human encounter with its imponderables, possibilities and risks obtains inestimable importance.

Thus Campe also advises parents, who are worried about the excessive media consumption of the children: “And if you really have the feeling that your teen is drifting off too much into the vibrant serial world – perhaps the problem lies somewhere completely different? Is it perhaps that something really lousy is happening right now which forces your offspring to seek an escape? The good old conversation could help here.”

About the author: Prof. Dr. Peter Loebell is a professor at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy.