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Why Teens are a Target: Identity and the Socially-constructed Self

By Dr. Lisa Dunne


Identity is under fire, and we are seeing the fallout in our youngest generations. Why are teens are a target, and what can you do to protect your family from the ongoing assault on identity?

We are social creatures, heavily influenced by our surroundings.  In social science, we call humans “psycho-social beings,” in that our behavior patterns are fueled through a somewhat mysterious amalgamation of social and psychological conditioning. To try to understand the self in a vacuum, devoid of social context, is superficial, artificial, and futile. 

The individual (and the individual’s potential for influence) must be understood within the context of the social world in which that individual dwells. Let’s look at a quick snapshot of some of the history and findings of the fields of social and developmental psychology. 

Burr says the influence of one’s social system is a vital clue to the identity of the individual: “We can’t understand what it means to be a person without an understanding of the way in which a person is socially embedded” (page 34). Part of the development of a human being is the creation of the group norms of the society in which the person lives. 

Early social psychologists such as Sherif and Le Bon found that the construction of a group norm “works not at the level of the individual but at the level of the collectivity,” a place where the whole is seemingly unrecognizable to the parts themselves (page 36). One’s social system can influence a wide range of beliefs, which lead to a wide range of actions, including the power of influence. “There is considerable concern here that rational, moral, and free-thinking individuals may be unduly influenced by their peer group if they find that their own personal views are unpopular or just uncommon” (page 35). 

In fact, much of the early research in social psychology was founded on a startling revelation that stemmed from World War II—that any seemingly “normal” individual could commit social atrocities if he or she were persuaded by social norms or peer pressure to do so. Social conformity is our inner desire to look to others for clarification and direction. The norms of a culture play a vital role in governing protective behavior:  “Individuals,” Burr says, “carry around with them the unwritten assumptions of their society.” 

Our frame of reference then, both reflects and illuminates the culture we belong or ascribe to. From an individual stance, Mead referred to this as “the generalized other,” the view of ourselves from the eyes of others, which offers us a “composite self-concept.” In other words, society’s “rules” live in us—the expectations, norms, and values of the culture in which we live. 

We carry within us a set of values that we have absorbed from our social worlds, from what George Herbert Mead called the “generalized other.” When we look to the “generalized other,” we recognize whether we are living within those guidelines--and whether we measure up to those now-internalized expectations.

When we look at the subject of peer influence, I wrote in The Science of Social Influence that we now recognize media as the ever-present peer, a “generalized other” of sorts that dictates rules and norms of “right and wrong.” These includes dress, hairstyles, music, and “acceptable” beliefs and behavior.

This persuasive perception of the generalized other can create an unhealthy expectation or value system that becomes embedded in our neural structure, and while we may not be aware of it until we “breach the culture,” we are nonetheless governed by its potentially injurious expectations.  As Mead and Burr both point out, there is no self but the social self: “The self is thoroughly social in origin.”

A similar concept of the self was put forth by Cooley (1902) in a notion he called the “looking-glass self.” Our understanding of who we are, Cooley said, is derived from the existence of others. Looking “in the glass,” Cooley said, the self is simply an amalgamation of the views of ourselves as reflected through the views of others. We are largely influenced and at times even governed by the social systems we find ourselves within. 

Parents, this is why it is vital that we gatekeeper for our families and use extreme caution when deciding who will be speaking into the lives of our children. 

Early social psychology was concerned with the potentially negative ramifications of the subtle peer influence exacted on the social self. In the famous Stanford Prison Study, Zimbardo (1975) found that individuals could enact disturbing behaviors if they felt relatively anonymous and if they believed the behavior was “expected” of him. That is, if an individual believed his identity to be protected and a person of influence placed upon him a clear “standard” of behavioral expectation, the individual would willingly violate his conscience in order to fulfill the expectations of the other.

As Zimbardo says, “Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than personality traits, character, will power, or other empirically invalidated constructs.”

But the Bible is clear. We BECOME like the company we keep. We are transforming, changing, morphing into a new creation. As one of my professors once asked, “What form is transforming?”

As American individualists, we don’t want to believe that we are influenceable, persuadable. We want to believe that our kids can stand alone against the forces of evil attempting to persuade them, to question their identity, their purpose. But teens are especially vulnerable because of their developmental period of life. They have a worldview, but their brain is still developing the capacity to think holistically, completely, with logic and emotion surging at the same time. 

There are many contributors to psychosocial transformation, but the important thing for us as parents is which ones do we have direct influence over?  How can we be agents of change? As humans, our upbringing is reflected in both our biological heritage and our external socialization. No longer do scientists duel over nurture versus nature debates; modern developmental research demonstrates that both influences play an important role in our development.

There is a powerful interface between biology and sociology: In fact, it might be said that sociology and biology work in tandem. For example, if a person grows up in an angry household, there may be biological underpinnings of anger or over- reactive tendencies, but there are also sociological ones; that is, the trait of explosive expression is taught as much as it is caught. 

A person growing up in an overweight household may have a genetic predisposition toward a larger physique, but there were also household practices, such as sedentary lifestyles and high calorie diets, that support this body type as well. As one developmentalist puts it, “fat runs in families, but so do frying pans” (Berger 2007). In other words, both nature and nurture are at work in our patterns of development.

The sociological surroundings in which we find or place ourselves play a vital role in our overall development. And, in the same way, for better or for worse, there are agents of influence in our social realms that are providing the psychological foundations for the paradigm we will hold tomorrow. One of these, of course, is our scholastic environment, the company we keep. Parents, choose wisely! Who is teaching your children, and what are they being taught? 

We all know that traditional education is broken beyond repair, and instead of training up joyful, creative, faith-filled scholars, our government education system is churning out atheist armies. This is the most anxious, depressed, atheist generation in the history of our nation! America’s educational and spiritual ecosystem must be completely transformed for the sake of the mental, physical, and spiritual health of the next generation.

Education is broken. Teens are a target. The good news? It’s a solvable problem.

Our local answer to the global crisis is Chula Vista Christian University and the Academic Rescue Mission. Through our inquiry-based model and our partnerships with parents and the local church, we are literally watching the culture shift!! 

CVCU is here to help you break free from the system from preschool to college support. Learn more about our college model at and our K to 12 model at the You can do this. We can help. 

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