Give more time to your private self
Social and developmental psychologists have long argued that we need both a private and a public persona. We need a public self to allow us to fit into society, and a private self to develop our own uniqueness.
Nowadays, when we spend so much time on social media and allow personal data to be gathered and stored online, the distinction between our public and private self is rapidly decreasing. Could this be bad psychologically for our mental stability? Preliminary research looking at the psychological health and predominant character traits of millennials, the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age, suggests no great concern.
Nicole Borges and colleagues at Northeastern Ohio College of Medicine compared the character traits of millennials at medical school with classmates from the preceding generation. They found millennials to be warmer and more outgoing, adaptive, socially bold and direct, as well as more organized and selfdisciplined — but at the same time, less self-reliant and more self-doubting than the previous generation.
Jean Twenge at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me presents a similarly mixed but balanced picture. She found millennials to be generally tolerant of others, open-minded and confident, but at the same time politically disengaged, often anxious and distrustful of authority.
Other studies offer similar profiles — and of course, no one can prove a causal relationship between the character traits of millennials and the decreasing distinction between their public and private lives. Overall, however, there’s no convincing evidence to suggest we should worry.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be concerned about a total merging of public and private self. Studies show that if we think we’re being watched, we’re more likely to comply with the wishes of those around us, rather than stick to our own beliefs and inclinations. Thus the more we rely on our public self to make decisions and to guide our behaviour, the less individualistically we think and behave. Although this makes for greater social harmony, it comes at a cost.
Julie Cohen, professor of law at Georgetown University, is eloquent in her article What Privacy Is For, in the Harvard Law Review. Privacy, she argues, is shorthand for breathing room, for time that allows us to develop our own unique identity, one that’s not pandering to surveillance, judgment or social values. When we’re alone and free from the pressure to please others, we can also decide how we’d like to develop our positive traits and change those that aren’t helping us realize our dreams.
And perhaps most importantly, time as your private self is time to play, experiment and dream without fear of censure. Only in this way can truly new and original ideas emerge.
Enjoy your busy public life, but remember to set aside time to be alone, to reflect, plan — and to dream.
Privacy is shorthand for breathing room, Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen writes in What Privacy Is For.