It is a common belief that the young love to socialize. They use every opportunity they can to hang out with their friends. Many elders are concerned about some factors in the socializing of their children. Sometimes, elders are concerned about the distance they feel with their children. They feel as though the friends have suddenly become more important than the parents. Another worry is with regard to the influence that friendships and socializing can have on the academic life of the youngsters. Also, the kind of friendships they form and the nature of their circle of socialising can also be a matter of concern. In the adolescent and teenage years, friends do become very important. Indeed, they are essential to the maturing of the youngster especially in learning crucial skills for his/her adult life. However, a lot depends on the kind of friends one makes. Considering the impact that the peer group has on the young minds, much of one’s future can be predicted by the type of friends one keeps. Adults do have a reason to worry. But just how do the youngsters select their friends or decide which group to socialise with? Though we cannot speak conclusively about determining factors of socialising, we can identify some important sociological and psychological factors that lead youngsters to friendship-circles that are unhelpful.

Family background/ situation

The type of family that an adolescent inhabits is very crucial. In the early years, the family usually has complete control over the exposure that one has with the outside world. The class, religion, caste, colour, ethnicity, etc of the parents will determine what kind of people the child gets to interact with, which school he will go to, what kind of hobbies are acceptable, etc.. Such an influence goes a long way in conditioning an adolescent’s mind regarding what is 'normal' and 'good', and may even create an 'other' in his mind. This is an important factor in helping the adolescent decide who his friends will be. Extreme and exclusive exposure to a single culture or value system can contribute to ghettoization of friend-circle and formation of in-groups based on rigid identities.

This influence of the parents and family can be considered inevitable in an average family. However, today along with transformation of familial structures into nuclear ones, there is greater stress on career and lesser emphasis on intergenerational solidarity. Families today can pose additional problems for a growing adolescent: troubled families, absent or semi-absent parents, violence prone parents, single parent homes, alcoholic parent, etc can add to the woes of an adolescent. Being taught what an ideal family is (one where adults respect each other, parents protect the children, children obey the parents...) and not being able to find it in one's own home can be very unsettling for the adolescent. Many societies are yet to come to terms with the demands placed by the career orientation of women, leading to frequent intra-family conflicts. When home becomes a war-zone between adults, children usually are the casualty. A conflict-infested home is almost guaranteed to groom a rebellious, mal-adjusted adolescent who easily falls prey to the seductions of risky behaviour.

Development of Self-Image and self-esteem:

This is an interactive dynamic process of building one's understanding of oneself. An adolescent depends on his/her ‘significant others’ in developing a self-image. Through words and actions these significant others communicate to the adolescents what they believe are the strengths and weaknesses of the person; and the adolescent in turn forms an image of him/herself based on his/her perception of the other’s judgement about his strengths and weaknesses. This complex process is often referred to in sociological literature as theory of ‘looking-glass self’. It is psychology that reminds us that this image that one forms inside is not necessarily congruent with reality about the individual. The higher is this congruence between reality and self-image, and the better is one’s acceptance of this congruence, the better is one’s self-esteem. Some youngsters grow up with a negative self-image. This can happen if his significant others either exaggerated the weaknesses and/or underplayed the talents. Conversely, some may grow up with an artificially boosted self-image. The more incongruent the self-image is with the reality, the more chances of the individual developing a low self-esteem. It has been proven that youngsters who suffer from a low self-esteem seek out circle of friends who will compensate for what they think they missed.

Reference Groups

Reference groups are persons whom the young admire, look up to and seek to emulate. These could be famous persons, film stars, sports-persons, a particular teacher, a priest, etc. It could also be a musical band or group of peers or seniors in the neighbourhood. A great deal depends on what the youngster considers to be important values. If freedom is a value of great importance to him/her, any group/individual who, in his opinion, symbolizes freedom will become the yardstick based on which he measures his worth. In other words they become his/her reference group and a part of his ‘significant other’. It is possible that the youngster considers some unhelpful habits of significant others as ‘cool’ or as demonstrative of a value important to him/her. The role of media in assisting a youngster decide which values are worth emulating and which behaviour demonstrates these values cannot be overstated. Thus, smoking, consumption of alcohol, use of drugs, dangerous driving, permissive sexual behaviour, etc. can be considered by a vulnerable youngster as signs of being a ‘free’ person, being masculine/feminine or of being an adult. The youngster then will look for peer groups that endorse these behaviours and prefer to socialise with them.

Rebellious/Contrast Socializing

Some youngsters socialise with ‘bad’ groups even when they know it is unhelpful for them. This usually happens as an act of rebellion against authority-figures, especially parents. The youngster may join a group that he/she knows will attract disapproval of parents to prove to himself/herself that authorities can be defied and that he/she can get away with it. The risk involved in such socialising itself is the attraction. In this case, they would keep such socialising a secret and may even enjoy doing so. The danger of such socialising is manifold. Since secrecy regarding group-membership is important, some ‘friends’ in the group may abuse the youngster or involve him/her in criminal activities.

Digital Socializing

Socialising acquires a different dimension in the digital era. It is not uncommon to find youngsters who spend time with their friends in the college/workplace, go back home and spend considerable part of evening/night texting or chatting, often with the same set of friends! Similarly, concern regarding the amount of time they spend in social networking websites also has attracted attention of social scientists. There are differing views regarding its influence on youngsters and why youngsters do what they do in the digital world. All things considered, there are three reasons why youngsters seem to love digital socialising.

Firstly, this helps to boost one’s image in front of others. Using the latest gadget to text or browse Internet, having membership in as many social networking sites as possible, flaunting more ‘friends’ than one’s friends, updating one’s profile frequently and posting photos to attract maximum comments and ‘likes’ - all these serve to boost one’s self-image and status among friends. However, it does happen that some youngsters become dependent on such Internet-boosts and become depressed if ‘unfriended’ or if their posts do not attract as much attention as they desire. Secondly, digital socialising, because it can be done from the security of one’s room, offers a unique opportunity to express views, opinions and even secrets, which one might shy away from in face-to-face interactions. Thirdly, the anonymity of chatrooms and interest groups offers them a chance to express those aspects of their life that in real life cannot be expressed due to social control.

It is not therefore uncommon for those with queer habits and even delinquent bend of mind to find like-minded companions online. This further cements one’s value-orientation and behaviour-patterns, and at the same time narrows the socialising circle. Digital socialising often develops into a vicious circle for those addicted to it. Many turn to it to cope with conflict with parents or loneliness in life. However it often results in narrowing the opportunities for face-to-face quality interaction with family members and others thus contributing to further conflict and increased loneliness, and even make the person incapable of dealing with real-life situations - all of which can seduce a person into the escape offered by the digital world.

Socialising, thus, takes various forms. When socialising happens in the right group, it can equip one to function as a member of a team, learn social skills, team-spirit, and to give and take emotional support. If one’s social circle is unhealthy it can make one into a maladjusted or even delinquent, individual. Though modernisation and technological innovations do play their part, the culprits that lead youngsters to bad company or unhealthy socialising are not new. Therefore, for a ‘responsible socialising’ to happen, the role of family, schools and media cannot be overemphasised. A positive self-image, high self-esteem and the security that an adolescent gets to enjoy in the family goes a long way in helping him make responsible decisions in choosing the right friends and even to influence the decisions taken in his social circle.

It is during one’s school years that one tests the values and skills learnt and also gets exposed to a variety of type of friends. It is imperative therefore, that in a school atmosphere the adolescent finds at least one adult whom he/she can confide in. An adolescent needs help to find a balance between his/her need to find himself/herself and to be identified with a group. Caught between childhood and adulthood, the adolescent needs to find, and be relatively secure in, one’s own self-identity before he/she can take one’s place in a group. Yet at the same time, the self-identity usually emerges from the adolescent’s interactions as a member of the group/society. Finding the right balance is a challenge. Can our social and educational system rise up to the challenge?

Fr. Shiju Joseph

Fr. Shiju Edassery, CSC, is a doctoral scholar doing research on marital adjustment among urban couples in India.