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Belonging: the lost art?

By Kirsten Oakley - posted Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Our teenagers are becoming increasingly alienated. Their existence within their technology defined lives is one of segregation. Isolated by the technology that continually accompanies them, they have effectively become estranged from each other and the immediate community that surrounds them.

The symptoms of this estrangement are everywhere. Youths who have no sense of compassion for their acquaintances gatecrash parties en masse. Young adults who have no loyalty to the local pub or its patrons become intoxicated and attack each other. Teens that spend hours playing games on their computers become so isolated they slip into depression. Clearly this lack of unity is having a negative effect on our kids.

Youth culture is not one of belonging anymore. Teenagers don’t feel tied to their community or their schools. This is evident in the lack of patronage for school clubs and community youth groups. Clubs which once thrived, like the YMCA and the Police Citizens Youth Club, are now virtually forgotten. This trend is not just an Australian problem but a global one. The Boy Scouts of America website shows that every year their groups are losing more members.


As a teacher, I have begun to fear for the disassociated masses that I observe daily. While their skill at texting each other grows, their face to face interaction appears to suffer. It is true that they are proficient at fostering online relationships. Most students report spending hours on msn, bebo, facebook and twitter. Yet these online associations don’t appear to help them to form real connections. I once witnessed a student informing another that she was the person that he had been chatting to all night. Their subsequent coolness to each other reveals that these internet conversations don’t lead to genuine connections in the real world.

Of course, there are some small groups that still retain a strong sense of belonging to their culture and their families. In my school the Maori students have strong cultural ties and a sense of responsibility to each other. Older students have been known to discipline younger rebels when they are embarrassing the group. The annual display of the Haka from this group is spectacular, and demonstrates their many hours of practice and their mentoring of the younger performers. The cohesiveness of groups like this, and the healthy self esteem of its members demonstrate the benefits of such unity. It is also a salient reminder of the estrangement of the typical teenager from their peers and the school community.

In the past, subcultures have offered a unique sense of belonging. Previous generations had the bodgies and the widgies, the anarchy of the punks, the proliferation of the surfies and the dark mystery of the goth subculture. Groups like this allowed for a connection with a particular community that was strengthened by a uniform and their own soundtrack. This generation’s most distinguishable subculture, the emo, is less defined. A curious mix of goth and grunge, the group is less about a soundtrack and more about a fashion trend.

Other subcultures that have taken off in the States, like hip hop and hardcore, have not had the same reception here. Instead teens tend to take a few aspects of each subculture’s fashion and music and interchange them casually. The result is that teenagers miss out on the sense of identity and unity that membership in such defined communities offer.

Even the small cliques that used to appear in schools have lost their definition. The advent of Wii style gaming and the ubiquity of the internet has meant that even the distinction between the jocks and the geeks now barely exists.

There are still outsiders in this disconnected community. Herein lies the paradox. Despite the fact that teenagers are essentially disconnected themselves, they still manage to find individuals who they feel identify less with the mass.


The internet dependence of teenagers also means that victimisation of perceived outsiders becomes easy. Instant messaging allows for damaging comments to be expediently delivered. The virtual anonymity of the net protects bullies and ensures that they can operate without retribution. Plus the lack of cohesiveness in these chat sites means that there is little chance that a peer will challenge the bully or protect the victim.

The internet allows for security to be eroded on other levels. Teenagers who desire the type of connections they are not making in real life form online friendships. But who are they really reaching out to? Past experience shows that predators, pedophiles and parents with a grudge have all impersonated kids to gain access to their targets. Plus the more disaffected and alienated the teenager is, the more likely that they will be easily won over by an online friend who appears to be listening to them. Clearly, this mix of technology and disunity is putting our kids in danger.

The internet does offer some help to unify the estranged masses. Teachers and classes are starting up their own communities, with sites accessible only by passwords. Such groups will strengthen the ties classmates feel and encourage bonds with students who actually reside in their own postcode.

There is also the argument that while our culture is becoming increasingly distilled and less relevant, a new global culture is beginning to emerge. Our increasing reliance on the internet means that the culture of many countries is blending into one uberculture. Maybe this identification with the global culture will reunite communities. Perhaps the bonds that fans of the Twilight books in Arizona and Blackpool feel with fans here in Australia will help them to cope with their growing disassociation. Perhaps connections like this will then help teenagers to reach out to other students they see in the school clutching the familiar black tome with reverence. Or will the child be more likely to ignore the possible real connection in favour of their new cyber buddies?

I have to continue to hope that the technology these youths cling to will eventually help to unify them. The alternative is an increasingly dystopic and anarchistic world to which no one would want to belong.

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About the Author

Kirsten Oakley is a high school teacher who has worked in both Australian and English schools. She is a part time writer who has published over 21 study guides. She has previously worked as a research assistant for the University of Western Sydney, focusing on projects relating to education.

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