“Life is a journey, not a destination” is a phrase that one hears from time to time. It asks us to focus not on the destination but the journey to arrive there. After all, the classic western ended with riding off into the sunset but the story was about everything that happened prior to that fadeout.
The journey can be an emotional/psychological one. Over the years we change from being an infant to an adult. Those changes are not always smooth or simultaneous. Sometimes the changes leading to maturity never occur at all.
Recently, there have been three independent examples related to the issue of emotional maturity involving our favorite national pastimes – baseball, football, and presidential politics. Coincidentally, psychological information also has been provided about a new technology, twitter, and its effect on emotional maturity. Together they tell a story worth paying attention to if you are interested in understanding the behavior of our President.
The first example comes from an AP article on baseball’s offensive tweeters. The headline in my local paper (8/7/18 Print) suggested the situation created teaching moments. The situation arose due to the discovery of “old” tweets by young baseball players among others. Suddenly young adults were examining their past from their teenage years, the time in life when people are most apt to do things they will later regret when they grow up. The teaching moments refers to a parent teaching a teenager of the consequences of the immature use of social media.
The article begins with a 13-year old boy. He has just been given parental permission to use social media. One notes he was the same age as when Tom Hanks became “big” and when the father of our president placed his son in military school in hopes he would grow up.
The reporter asks if a 13 year-old is old enough and mature enough for social media. She specifically refers to the internet reality of such posts never vanishing and being available to others, specifically college admission officers, employers, [and potential dates/mates]. As the father was quoted saying, “you never know when something could come back to bite you.” That clever racist, sexist, homophobic remark might not seem so clever a scant five to seven years later when one ventures into the adult world.
The reporter quotes adolescent psychologist Shane Owens said: “Most kids are not able to appreciate the long-term consequences of their actions.” Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Well-Cornell Medical College, added:
No one is immune to the negative consequences of making impulsive choices that did not take into account possible bad outcomes in the future.
The article concludes by asking if the expressions of regret by the baseball players are sincere … or if they were simply caught and are doing damage control coached by spin experts. At this point we don’t know the answer. Time will tell.
Implicit in these comments is the assumption that teenagers will grow up. Just as Mark Twain was amazed at how much his father had learned in the time Twain went from being a teenager to an adult, it is expected that these teenagers will outgrow the smart-aleck tweets of their youth and grow up; they will not remain frozen at that level into the eighth decade of their life. One should consider these tweets as vestiges from the buried past and not expressions of where one is in the present. But what if the teenager never grows up, never matures, and continues to be a smart-aleck all his life?
The example here is with Johnny Football. Once upon a time, Johnny Manziel was a polite well-behaved high school quarterback. Then he was recruited for college. Then he became a starting quarterback for a college team. Then he won the Heisman Trophy as the outstanding college player in his freshman year.
Many teenagers are not emotionally ready when they go away to college. Look at the frat parties and suicides. How much more so when the spotlight always is on you even if you are not a narcissist? To say Johnny Football could not cope is an understatement. Now he is trying to become an adult football player in the Canadian Football League.
There were a lot of things that happened in my life that were the result of direct choices and decisions that I made as a 23-, 24-year old man. I am not proud of it. It’s hard to sit here and look and see some of things that happen (NYT 8/11/18 Print).
So says the oldster of 25. Perhaps he is now ready to grow up. In his case, his immaturity led to drugs and alcohol, not Twitter.
Continuing along these lines, I now turn to “The High School We Can’t Log Off From” (NYT, 8/5/18 Print) by Jennifer Senior. She gently writes:
Twitter is a dark reservoir of hatred, home to the diseased national id. It turns us into our worst selves — dehumanizing us, deranging us, keying us up, beating us down, turning us into shrieking outrage monkeys hellbent on the innocents of Oz. It uncomplicates complicated discussion; stealth-curates our news; hijacks our dopamine systems, carrying us off on a devil’s quest for ever more dime bags of retweets and likes.
Her ire is particularly addressed towards the use of Twitter for current affairs and political opinion.
Most Twitter users know that the medium has an unfortunate tendency to transform adults into anxious adolescents. But perhaps it’s time to start thinking about this problem clinically. The fact is, Twitter is changing us — regressing us — in ways developmental psychologists would find weirdly recognizable.
Her assumption is that the Twitter user starts as an adult and not as an immature child in the body of an adult. So if mature adult Twitter users regress from excessive use, what about immature adults?
She rhetorically asks:
Should we be surprised that a man who’s so frequently compared to a needy adolescent has chosen Twitter as his favorite medium?
For the 7th-grade smart-aleck dumb-aleck, Twitter is the perfect invention.
To substantiate her perceptions she draws on an internet expert.
Clay Shirky, one of the shrewdest internet theorists around, has noted that the faster the medium is, the more emotional it gets. Twitter, as we know, is pretty fast, and therefore runs pretty hot. (Emotional tweets, research has shown, travel more swiftly than anodyne ones.) We often become creatures of our limbic systems when we tweet. Our self-regulation deserts us (been there); our prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function and impulse control, goes offline; we become reward-seeking Scud missiles, addicts in search of a fix.
She still is focusing on the mature adult. Her analysis is based on adult having a developed prefrontal cortex going offline. She has overlooked the situation of an immature adult who does not have a developed prefrontal cortex such as the teenage baseball and football athletes noted above.
Senior observes a regression from adult to teenage behavior.
We become, in other words, teenagers, who are notoriously poor models of self-regulation — in large part because their prefrontal cortices are still developing and their dopamine circuits are pretty busy seeking stimulation. The psychologist Laurence Steinberg describes adolescents as “cars with powerful accelerators and weak brakes.” The neuroscientist BJ Casey deems them “more Kirk than Spock.”
Putting aside this lack of understanding of Kirk (see The Enemy Within where Kirk is divided into two parts), the overall comment is valid. But again, suppose those prefrontal cortices never fully develop in the first place, not even in the eighth decade of one’s life, then what?
Senior concludes with a cautionary warning:
The problem is, Twitter rewards us for our mistakes. It isn’t designed to let us grow up. The time in our lives we were so happy to leave behind — the time cruelties were experienced with an especial intensity — we are living all over again. For all we know, the effects of the new unkindness we’ve sown may be just as hard to undo.
Now imagine how much more so this condition is if one never grew up.
Given this background, the reaction by the President of the United States to Omarosa should be no surprise whatsoever. If his eight tweets, derogatory language, and obsession took you by surprise, then you have less understanding of him than the Republican base. What is the one comment his supporters make again and again: they wish he would stop tweeting or tweet less. This comment is shorthand for the fact they recognize that he is an immature child. Regardless of his positions on any issue, these supporters know he is behaving just like their teenage children. They know they would not tolerate such tweets in their own family. They know they would not tolerate such tweets in the classroom. They know they do not want such tweets in their country. They know the more he acts like an immature child, they more he undermines what they want him to accomplish as an adult.
His Omarosa tweets expose him not just as a bigot, but as the 7th grade smart-aleck dumb-aleck he truly is. One day in the Unpresidential Library, there will be a room dedicated to his hissy fit tweets. Visitors tired of reading the uplifting words of American Presidents will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of our immature child president. Imagine the challenge for the teachers of teenagers today starting in the new school year. The students in American history classes will read the words of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and John Kennedy. Then they will read the rantings of immature child, a person who is less coherent than a Playmate or porn performer. Imagine trying to maintain order in that class! Wait and see what happens if the teachers get to the 21st century in the spring!
So when Omarosa speaks of the mental decline of Trump, the very tweets he wrote to mock her prove her point. But the cause may not be Alzheimer’s. The cause may be an immature child addicted to a technology that degrades his mental necessities even further.