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The Imaginary Audience

A particular activity I did in school has always stuck with me. I was a teenager and we were learning about the effects of alcohol consumption. The teacher had a set of goggles that simulated the impairment to vision, balance, processing, etc. that one might expect for different blood alcohol levels. As you might expect, everyone was pretty excited to try out the goggles. We had a great time blundering our way through an obstacle course while wearing the goggles. Alternately, we had a great time laughing at others blundering their way through an obstacle course while wearing the goggles.

This strikes me now as a relevant metaphor for the teen experience (or maybe even the human experience). When teens (or ourselves, or really anyone) seem to stumble around obstacles that don’t appear that difficult, it is worth considering what goggles they may be wearing.

For example, it may not seem like that big a deal to stand up in front of a class and try to answer a critical thinking question. The worst that could happen is you do your best and you don’t give all that great of an answer, right? And yet, this sort of obstacle often really trips up teenagers. Again, in this type of circumstance it’s useful to ask what goggles the student may be wearing and how those goggles may be distorting the world as the student sees it.

The teen lens has many features, some unique to the student and some more generalized. However, the teen lens I want to address in this article is called the imaginary audience. This lens has a major impact on how teens see the world and major implications for teaching teen students.

The term “imaginary audience" was coined by psychologist David Elkind in 1967. I’ve referenced this element of teen life in previous articles, but hope to do a more thorough examination here. The imaginary audience is an internal belief (but not a consciously chosen belief) that others are constantly observing and are deeply interested in oneself. In other words, it is like a pair of goggles that distort reality causing it to appear that everyone is always looking at you, talking about you behind your back, scrutinizing your clothing, words, behaviors, etc.

At this point, I might go into a pretty thorough explanation of the experiments and ideas that produced the theory of the imaginary audience, but I suspect that this would produce more reading than you are looking for here. So I’ll simply give a quick summary and encourage you to pursue further research on the subject if you find it interesting. The main idea is that the imaginary audience is experienced by all teenagers. It is more intense in some than others for a variety of reasons. But the experience itself is one that is general to teen life. The reason that it isn’t particular to specific teens is because it is based in teen brain development. Essentially, in the teen years, the brain is beginning to really comprehend that other people do not see what we see or think what we think. And yet, the brain is not ready to differentiate oneself from the rest of the world sufficiently to stop seeing oneself as the primary character in the world. As a result, others don’t think what I think, but they do pay attention to me as much as I pay attention to myself, and they think about me as much as I think about myself. In other words - everyone is looking at and thinking about me.

Important to note here is that teenagers don’t adopt this set of unconscious beliefs because they are selfish or morally bankrupt in any way. Again, this is a phase that everyone passes through to one extent or another, because this is how human brains develop. And if this hasn’t resonated with you yet, then consider the following example to see if you recognize any of the thoughts and feelings from your own teen life.

I taught a student a few years ago. I share her story with her permission. She started my class as a particularly bright and capable eleven year old. I don’t usually let eleven year olds take my class, but she was mature for her age and intellectually very sharp. Her first two years in my class went swimmingly. She got along with classmates, performed well in debate tournaments, did her homework assiduously, etc. In her third year, things started to go south. She was now thirteen turning fourteen and she seemed less happy in class, was reluctant to compete in tournaments (despite her previous success in tournaments), was less willing to share her opinion, etc. I eventually took an opportunity to speak with her one on one. It turned out that she had been hit with a particularly strong dose of the imaginary audience. She told me that she was the only one in the class with no friends and that everyone liked each other but ignored her (both observably not accurate assessments of what was going on in class). She talked about how much harder debate was getting because it was so hard to mess up in front of other people. It made tournaments hard, it made speaking up in class hard. Basically it made everything about the class hard. Even just being in class was hard.

I remember feeling similarly at that age. I imagine that anyone who has traveled the valley of death (also known as 8th grade) remembers feeling similarly to some extent.

This pair of goggles is a particularly difficult pair to wear. It makes education and even general life difficult for our students. And if we want to be great teachers for teen students, it is important to consider how one will deal with the fact that all of your students are likely wearing those goggles to one extent or another. Therefore, I offer the following ideas in navigating the imaginary audience with your audience.

Homeschooling Does Not Remove The Goggles-

While it is true that public education can sometimes present particularly difficult social challenges for students to navigate, and homeschooling often offers opportunities to present a more supportive social environment to students, it is not true that homeschooling changes brain chemistry. Homeschooling students experience the imaginary audience just like anyone else, and homeschooling teachers have to contend with the imaginary audience just like any teacher.

Who Experiences it the Most-

The initial findings of David Elkind and Robert Bowen found that students were least willing to reveal themselves to others in 8th grade. They also found that the effect appeared somewhat more pronounced in girls than in boys. A later study showed a similar result. Students in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade appeared to feel the imaginary audience quite strongly, but the effect had subsided by a significant amount by 12th grade. Their study also indicated that girls tend to feel the imaginary audience more than boys.

These are, of course, statistical results and individuals aren’t conglomerate statistics. So individual experiences may vary widely. But if you are teaching junior high age students, then more or less everyone in your class has those goggles on and the girls in your class are probably feeling the effect a little more acutely than the boys. Students Don’t Know They Are Wearing the Goggles

One of the most important elements to understand for a teacher of teen students is that the imaginary audience feels entirely real to students. They don’t see it as a distortion of reality because their brain literally perceives reality in that way. In the example I began with, my classmates and I could laugh about stumbling around the obstacles because we knew that we were wearing reality distorting goggles. But teens who are stumbling around obstacles feeling like everyone is looking at and laughing at them have no such benefit. A better approach than dismissing their concerns as silly (or worse, conceited) is to help students understand what they are experiencing. Most students I teach have never heard of the imaginary audience until I explain it to them. It’s fun to see the understanding (and in many cases, relief) in their eyes as I explain it to them. And then, when students have that framework available, it is easier to help them reason through the reticence they feel to take risks in front of other students. Making students aware of how they feel doesn’t take the experience away. But it does help them make sense of what they are experiencing and value the opportunity to act rationally even if it is scary.

Environment Matters

One of the best ways to help students deal with the imaginary audience is to ensure an environment that doesn’t contribute to the problem. As previously stated, you aren’t going to change student brain chemistry. But environments still have an effect on outcomes. For example, in the second study cited above, one of the more interesting outcomes is that girls in the study were less willing to reveal their transient selves (the part of themselves that they saw as changeable) than boys in the study. But, on the other hand, they weren’t any less likely to reveal their intransient selves (the part of themselves that they saw as unchanging) than the boys in the study. The authors of the study theorize that societal expectations regarding appearance for girls may explain some of the gap in how boys and girls experience the imaginary audience.

This points us to the idea that the environment in which students operate may not affect whether or not they obsess over others’ opinions of them, but it can affect how much they obsess over others’ opinions of them. Therefore, fostering a pluralistic environment in which students feel respected for their value as people and in which risk taking is valued and rewarded is an important part of helping students navigate the imaginary audience. Secure Connections Help

Another very interesting result from the second study cited above is that students who had strong parental connections weren’t any less likely to experience the imaginary audience in younger grades. However, they were more likely to have successfully dropped the imaginary audience from their thinking by 12th grade. We may theorize as to why this is the case. Perhaps it is because they are more likely to have someone in their life who sees what is going on and is helping them understand the experience. Perhaps they are more likely to prove the imaginary audience false to themselves through self disclosure to others because they have a secure connection to return to should their self disclosure go awry. Or perhaps it is something else entirely. But it does seem that loving parental relationships help students navigate the issue. My experience says that this is true for teachers as well. Students are more likely to navigate this issue well under the guidance of a teacher with whom they have a secure connection. Students should know that you care for them and hold them in high regard because you tell them that you care for them and that you hold them in high regard. That sort of secure connection benefits students in their education generally and in their ability to successfully navigate the imaginary audience.

Conclusion

The student that I referenced in the beginning of the article was exceptionally relieved to hear someone give some reason as to why she was feeling the way she was feeling. And yet, the dose of the imaginary audience she received was, as I had mentioned, particularly strong. She finished the year out bravely, and then took a year off of my class to get her feet under her. And she did. When she returned the following year she was back to talking to other students in class, making connections, taking risks, doing homework, and generally thriving. She expressed to me a number of times how much better she felt as she began to feel that imaginary audience disperse in her mind. And it was so wonderful for me to see her begin to thrive again as a student.

Wearing the imaginary audience goggles is challenging. It causes students to stumble and it makes teen life difficult. But if we understand the experience well, then we can help guide students through it. And if we do, then the dividend in happy well adjusted students on the other side is the beautiful outcome we get to enjoy.

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