Defining Adolescence in the Digital Age

Does unfettered access to digital information mean Generation Alpha is growing up faster?

Article by Joseph Lew

Technology has revolutionised education. It has eroded barriers to learning and reshaped the traditional teacher-directed pedagogy. Photography by Airiz.

There are near-universal experiences that define adolescence. The gangly limbs that shoot out from nowhere, the pimples that don’t seem to go away, that strange phase when you don’t know how to dress but at the same time suspect you look better than everyone else. For most, the only reprieve is in realising everyone else is in the same situation. But in an increasingly digitalised age, an unnerving question arises: Does unfettered access to digital information redefine what it means to be an adolescent?

Enter Generation Alpha, the eldest of whom were born in 2010, the year Instagram launched, the iPad was released and ‘app’ was the word of the year. Little other context is required to establish this group’s digital inclinations. Generation Alpha embodies an unprecedented level of technological connection and development, as suggested by their moniker the ‘up-agers’, a nod to them appearing older than their years from a young age. And it’s not just physically. Their psychological development, educational knowledge and access to information is seemingly unparalleled and unrestricted by any numerical bracket.

“The impact and difference Generation Alpha has had in their upbringing is quite profound,” says Mark McCrindle, the author of the book “Generation Alpha”, and the man credited with coining the term. He explains this upbringing is guided by screen time, highlighted by the fact that almost half of children have access to a mobile phone. “These devices are being used for everything from social connection to a learning tool, and even as a pacifier when the children are fired up,” the social analyst explains. The impact of this technological presence is steadily revealing itself — teachers in McCrindle’s research samples reported that they had to adjust educational activities as a result of today’s nine-year-olds performing at the same level as those three or four years older.

For those outside of this new generation, it’s oddly common for resentment to form upon glimpsing these poised, well-dressed young people. Photography by Airiz.

Technology has revolutionised education. It has eroded barriers to learning and reshaped the traditional teacher-directed pedagogy. With unlimited access to knowledge-sharing systems and a global perspective, willing students are able to teach themselves everything from finance to health education with only a mobile device and an internet connection. Generation Alpha is set to surpass previous generations in educational terms, with 90 per cent of them predicted to complete secondary schooling (compared with about 80 per cent of Gen Z).

Intertwined with this learning empowerment, however, is a shift in how authority figures are acknowledged. Generation Alpha exhibits an unwillingness to restrict information seeking to the usual channels such as parents, teachers, experts and officials, instead addressing their questions to social media and the broadening expanse of the worldwide web. They seek health advice through message boards and news updates through social media channels, even if the motives of the sources “are not as objective or pure as traditional expert channels”, McCrindle notes. This presents an unfamiliar pustule for these emerging teens to tackle: misinformation. “In the speed of accessing information, the credibility of the source might be overlooked,” McCrindle says. “In the ease of obtaining access to that knowledge, the critical thinking and critical assessment may not be as strong.”

This digital permeation seeps into Generation Alpha’s sense of identity, too. “These children are growing up in all these artificial environments,” Vee, a high-school teacher, commiserates. But perhaps these digital environments are what enable Generation Alpha to form such strong ideas of self so young; they’re able to access a greater diversity of role models from an early age — ones who look like them, share the same values and belong to the same communities. For those prone to feeling isolated, virtual connection means they can come of age with support, guidance and companionship they might otherwise not have found.

For those outside of Generation Alpha, it’s oddly common for resentment to form upon glimpsing these poised, well-dressed young people. After all, it can seem that they managed to skip the bitter indignation of the awkward teenage years and turn out smarter, more composed and better connected. But look beyond that facade and the unsettling realisation might sink in that Generation Alpha are victims: a generational guinea pig forced to grow up faster, with only escaped acne and embarrassing photos to show for it. So perhaps the real question is not whether technology has redefined adolescence, but how we can ensure this emerging generation get to be adolescents in the first place.