It’s been nearly two decades since the psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined the phrase “emerging adulthood” to describe young people between the ages of 18 and 29. Previous generations, Arnett observed, moved from adolescence into adulthood without much preamble; it used to be common to marry right out of high school, start a family, and work a steady job.
But then things started to shift. Arnett observed young adults milling about the waiting room before entering adulthood, compounded by an uncertainty about how exactly to start “adulting.” And yes, that verb is now in regular, if still somewhat self-conscious, circulation, thanks to a website of the same name that promises to teach young people “how to become a grown-up,” “in 468 easy(ish) steps.”
Around the time Arnett published his ground-breaking work, Britney Spears, the poet of emerging adulthood, wrote a song called “Not a Girl,” a song which could be considered the ballad of the in-betweeners.
I’m not a girl / Not yet a woman
(I’m not a girl don’t tell me what to believe)
All I need is time / A moment that is mine
While I'm in between
Neither Arnett nor Spears probably fully understood the development that would end up reshaping emerging adulthood more than any other: the emergence of the Internet as the dominant social context of our time. The Internet today is a pervasive presence, a thoroughgoing part of existence. Young adults still experience the intensity of being in-between, living in the “age of identity exploration,” as Arnett put it—only now they experience it online.
It is easy to forget just how new, and how startling, this shift is. In the past, a person could try on different personas as he milled about, waiting for things to really start. He could work out his belief system, his network of friends, his relationship with his parents—all of it in relative privacy. The idea of making any of this truly public, available in principle to anyone and everyone, present and future, while it was still in process, would have been unimaginable (not to mention impossible).
Today most Americans use social media: 62 percent of all adults are on Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. That rises to 82 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 29, the same demographic that Arnett identifies as milling about the waiting room of adulthood. Facebook may have the reputation of no longer being the trendiest social network, but reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Add other social media platforms to the mix—Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and so on—and it adds up to this: being a young adult means being online. Being online offers young adults “their very lifeline to the world,” as Arnett stated in a summary of his most recent research on the topic.
The Comment Section Effect
Does it matter that young people are inching toward adulthood, developing their beliefs, their practices, their core identities, all while using social media as a “lifeline to the world”? The short answer is: we don’t know yet. The Internet hasn’t been around long enough to fully assess its effects on human experience. But in the meantime, the question of social media’s influence takes on added complexity for young Christians.
Along with the usual concerns all young people share—finding stability, a meaningful job, a relationship that makes the heart sing—for those who profess Christian faith there is a far greater one: working out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Matters of the soul, your place in the church, questions about the goodness of God or even his existence, questions of death, eternity, sin, the problem of evil—matters that have been of concern to young people all along—are now all being worked out in public, in real time. This process used to be a sometimes-agonizing, always-private rite of passage. Not any longer.