The Digital Rites of Passage

24/10/2014 15:45 BST | Updated 24/12/2014 10:59 GMT

One of the most interesting observations of life in the digital world was made recently by young people participating in an excellent youth-led inquiry into cyberbullying. They highlighted the difficulties of emerging from the anonymity afforded them on children's sites to complete transparency on social media in the teenage years, interacting under their own name.

The inquiry, organised by Luke Roberts of Resolve Consultants (, enabled young people to pose questions to experts on issues that mattered to them. Whilst much more will emerge from that event, the observation that young people go from being anonymous online in early childhood, to being identifiable at adolescence was a very present issue for them. This also occurs without any guidance on how to manage that process or how to behave once the digital cloak of invisibility has been removed. Young people clearly find this leap in exposure, when they start to interact under their own names (even if they do swap or use each other's accounts) daunting, as comments and postings become traceable and permanent. The curtains are thrown open as young people begin to create their online profiles and digitally and publicly document their lives.

If this transition were on its own, it might be less daunting, but it is a curious aspect of developmental progress in the world that simultaneously they face even more challenges. Largely coincident with this step, and within a short space of time, a child moves from the protected, smaller space of primary school, to the usually larger, fraught environment of secondary school, where you will certainly not be the most cool, knowledgeable or largest young person there. The burden of inexperience there is not easy. But during this transition within education, there is yet another transition in progress; the 'transformations of puberty' as described by Sigmund Freud. Virtually every aspect of our bodies systems are refashioned during puberty, in preparation for adult life, and there are temporary disturbances in their functioning during this process. You simply are not what you were, and will never be so again.

The brain is not exempt from this process. Neurologically, the judgement and decision making capacities of the forebrain are temporarily diminished during puberty, just when they might have been quite useful. For the young person though, it doesn't even end there; it is likely at this time of turbulence and transition, a young person is given a smartphone, so that their parents can keep in touch with them more easily, and vice versa. At a time of intense emotional turbulence, accompanied by the risk of risky behaviour, we give the most sophisticated, connected device to the young person, which can be carried on the person everywhere. The device is not just capable of communication, but also of the creation (or distortion) of profiles through written, audio or visual content. All now traceable back to you. In this excess of novelty, mistakes will be made, even if learning can follow.

It is little wonder that anonymous sites and apps, like Whisper or, and ephemeral apps are terribly appealing to young people, and their use by them continues to grow. They avoid the need for an online eraser for the mistakes, even if there is the risk of online disinhibition, as described by John Suler.

What most moved me about the young people's observations, on the shift from anonymity to being identifiable, was the implicit request for help in managing this transition, and not just technical support. We may be getting better at helping young people report risks and concerns or block bullying behaviour, but I suspect we are only just starting to engage with the psychological or emotional impact of what they must traverse, let alone how that will shape their identities. Helping them make sense of the different responses they may also receive is now also part of our work. But typical of their generosity (often unacknowledged) at that stage of life, they do keep trying to help us understand better what they need, so that we can then talk with them, rather than to them.