Technology: the ill-suited “third place” for younger generations

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By Chloe Smith

With technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, children and teenagers in the U.S. are substituting online spaces for the real world. Gen Z now lacks more social connectedness than any other generation, raising concerns about the relationship between reliance on technology as a “third place” and the increased prevalence of social anxiety and other mental health issues among the youth.

“It’s easier to stay home on the couch with your screen because you’re passive and you’re not being challenged,” Michele Fouts, a clinical psychologist and professor of child psychology at Flagler College, said. “The more you do that, the harder it is to then go out and engage with real people. And so then, you become more avoidant and thus more driven to use your screen.”

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third places” to refer to locations where people gather and socialize between home (the first place) and work (the second place).

Oldenburg argues that spaces like this- parks, libraries, churches, recreation centers, general stores, and more- are essential to local democracy and community vitality. Their loss has been an ongoing issue for decades and is one of the most significant factors leading to increased technology use among U.S. children and teenagers.

“I think [third places] are definitely being less prioritized,” Flagler psychology student Gracey Swatts said. “You don’t really see a lot of new parks or playgrounds or even town squares, especially in this country since it’s such a car-dependent country.” 

According to a 2022 SSM- Population Health report, the most dramatic trends in social connectedness are the “plummeting social engagement with friends, ‘others,’ and companionship for the youngest group (15-24 years) relative to all other ages.”

Detrimental consequences at a digital crossroad

While digital communities, often formed through social networking sites, chat rooms, forums, discussion boards, and daily social media platforms, can be highly beneficial, they often lack the most critical aspect of an adequate third place. 

“[Technology] kind of puts you in this bubble where you’re interacting with people almost like through a third party,” Swatts said. 

Online spaces give users complete control, eliminating the sense of unsureness or low-risk randomness that comes with a physical place with physical beings.   

“The less and less practice you have of dealing with uncertainty in real life, the harder it gets, right? And the more you want to avoid it,” Fouts said. 

A recent report by Common Sense found the average 8-12-year-old uses about five and a half hours of screen media daily, while 13-18-year-olds use about eight and a half hours.

“It’s easy if they have a phone,” Swatts said. “It’s free. They don’t have to ask their parent to go somewhere.” 

Photo by Cottonbro Studio.

When face-to-face interaction is replaced with online third places, there are hugely harmful consequences, especially for younger generations whose brains are still developing and maturing. 

“I see social anxiety very, very high,” Fouts said. “I’ve been teaching here [at Flagler] for six years consecutively, and I see my students are way more socially anxious today than they were six years ago. Like, my students are afraid to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t understand.’”

Fouts also said that children who are allowed too much screen time may grow up to become more irritable, have a shorter attention span, be unable to focus, lack social-emotional development, and be more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors or exhibit poor self-regulation. 

“We see a strong correlation between the more that adolescents use social media, the more mental health issues they have,” Fouts said. “That’s been pretty well documented.”

Disappearance of third places

Unfortunately, public spaces across the country have become alarmingly infrequent and inaccessible, leaving younger generations with few physical locations to gather and socialize beyond home or school. A laundry list of factors, ranging from COVID-19 to inflation to American culture, can account for this decline in the U.S. 

“The United States has an incredibly individualistic culture,” Fouts said. “I don’t think our culture does a good job of looking at all the external factors that shape how people thrive or not.”

Photo by Paul Sableman.

Malls are closing nationwide, fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A have removed PlayPlaces, and cities remain notoriously unwalkable. This forces children and teenagers to resort to technology to feel socially connected.

“Bad things happen when neighborhoods lose their economic viability,” Oldenburg writes in a 2014 New York Times column. “City officials would do well to realize that urban vitality depends on how citizens spend their leisure hours by giving well-intentioned community organizers and developers tax breaks or rent subsidies to plan and build innovative gathering places.”

The consequences of technology operating as the gathering spot for the youth are incredibly complex, and no one solution exists. Still, Fouts remains optimistic for future generations. 

“Part of me is hopeful that today’s young people will see the harms of excessive screen use or excessive social media use and choose to move from away it,” Fouts said. “But that might be a while. It’s probably going to take a generation or two or three before we see some moderation.”

Third places, whether online or in-person, are needed more in the U.S. But, it is crucial to recognize that digital spaces are incomparable to the real world in maintaining social connectedness. 

“Joyful association in the public domain is far better than watching television in our lifeless subdivisions,” Oldenburg said.

Read Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place to learn more about the essential role of public social spots outside of work and home.

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