Therapist Training Series: Social Rituals of True Digital Natives

Written by
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC &
Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.

Therapist Training Series Lead Image

This is part one of our therapist training series on a group we call true digital natives. The first people in human history born into a world with an established, online, social structure.

They are now coming of age. And the rituals and unspoken social rules around family, friendship, and dating are changing in their wake.

In interview after interview, they say they desperately need adult guidance to navigate their digital social worlds.

But without the judgments or dismissive attitudes many digital immigrants show them.

As therapists, we have a learning curve to overcome if we are to provide, at the very least, culturally competent services for true digital natives. Ideally, we can achieve cultural humility and partner with them to understand how technology is forever changing our template for human relations. Read on to learn.

Table of Contents

Who are "True" Digital Natives and Why are They Different?

The term digital native was first used in 1995 to refer to people more comfortable with using a computer.1

In keeping with the metaphor, those not so comfortable were dubbed digital immigrants.

But when it comes to people, you can’t have natives or immigrants without first having a social structure for those people to be native or immigrant to.

And a digital social structure couldn’t even begin to flourish until 2007.

Because that was the year that Apple launched the first iPhone.2

Thanks to the iPhone’s web browsing capability and revolutionary multi-touch screen, for the first time, people who understood nothing about computer programming could not only use the internet but carry it in their pockets.

As luck would have it, just nine months earlier, Facebook expanded from college and high school students to letting anyone over the age of thirteen onto their platform.3

In 2008, the iPhone App store was launched, providing a new marketplace from which developers could funnel a barrage of social media apps into people’s hands.4

And the stage was set for online social networking to transform the world.

So, for the rest of this article, we’ll refer to people born within five years of 2007 (or the launch of the iPhone) as “true digital natives”. The oldest are 19 years old at the time of this writing. Anyone born after them is in this group.

Or more to the point, there will never be another person born into this world that isn’t a true digital native.

From now on, it will be normal to form one’s identity online with everyone watching.

In this article, we’ll pose some questions to help you discover ways you can practice cultural humility in your work with true digital natives. Then we’ll take a look at how the internet is changing the way teenagers relate to one another, perhaps forever.

When it comes to people, you can’t have natives or immigrants without first having a social structure for them to be native or immigrant to.

And a digital social structure couldn’t even begin to flourish until 2007. That was the year that Apple launched the first iPhone.

A Timeline of the Digital Social Landscape as Compared with the Birth Years of Today’s Teenagers and Children

Therapist Training: Cultural Humility While Working with True Digital Natives

Being culturally competent in the mental health field involves understanding cultural values, awareness of potential biases, and the use of effective strategies to increase one’s cultural knowledge and humility while being empirically grounded.5, 6

Four aspects of cultural humility are especially useful to working with true digital natives.

1. Cultural humility asks that we consider the ‘other’ an expert in their own experiences.

It can be especially tempting to assume we are the experts when working with teenagers and kids.

We have more life experience and, as therapists, we have the added assurance of our various specializations. Younger therapists might believe they’re close enough in age to require little in the way of cultural learning.

But even the youngest clinicians today can remember a time before social media. Not so with our true digital natives. Since before they were born, the mainstream of society socialized online.

We know what it’s like to be teenagers. But we don’t know what it’s like to experience that time in a way that is public and open for commentary.

Perhaps more interestingly, we don’t understand the social structures that true digital natives are forming for themselves.

As we adults disregard the digital spaces where they relate to one another, we miss out on this fascinating new culture unfolding in real time.

2. Cultural humility requires knowledge of history.

As adults, we must remember that all the technological advancements that have become a part of our everyday lives were mainstreamed before today’s teens and tweens were born. Or at least before they were old enough to understand there was a world outside of them.

We should understand that the immediacy, publicness, and lack of physical limitations inherent in internet technology can affect people’s perceptions of reasonableness or appropriateness. And realize we don’t know what that affect might be for young minds still developing.

3. Cultural humility requires continual reflection on our own beliefs.

As we age, our concept of time speeds up and we can quickly fall behind while still believing we’re in touch with the current reality. It’s our duty to investigate whether our beliefs and memories of adolescence reflect the reality of most contemporary teens and tweens.

Do we understand how many hours a day kids and teens are online just to attend class and receive and complete homework assignments?

Have we ever been dismissive, or brushed past mentions of social media or relationships made online?

How familiar are we with the tools and applications teens and kids use to communicate and the logistical implications they impose on their relationships?

Have we made room at the table for teens when discussing the possibility of parents monitoring their activity online or their location through GPS applications?

Do we assume children have no opinion about their parents posting about them on social media?

4. Cultural humility requires reflection on our profession

How relevant are mental health services to the teens, tweens, and kids we seek to serve? Do we have an active online presence in the spaces they frequent, or do we expect them to find our websites?

Do we communicate with our clients via text, or do we expect them to email or leave us a voicemail? (Two platforms considered inefficient and overly formal by today’s youth.)

Are we trained on the applications where most socializing occurs? Do we have a solid grasp of how teens, tweens and children interact in these spaces?

Are we informed about the ways that technology can be misused against youth and teens in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking?

5. Cultural humility is ongoing

Soon, true digital natives will outnumber the rest of us.

Unless we keep ourselves informed by asking questions on an ongoing basis and letting them be the experts, we risk having our services becoming irrelevant to this growing population.

In the following sections, we’ll look at why the digital social landscape is different from traditional social environments. As well as provide resources for further study.

Friendship Rituals Changed by the Internet

A 2018 Pew Research survey found that US teens ages 13 to 17 are more likely to hang with friends online day-to-day than visit them in person (excluding class time and school-related activities).7, And in a 2018 survey by the UK Safer Internet Centre of 2000 kids ages 8 to 17, most said they would feel isolated if they couldn’t talk to friends via technology.8 It’s no wonder. Today’s teenagers go to 17 less parties a year than their 1980’s counterparts.9 And this was before the pandemic.
A review of nationally representative samples of U.S. adolescents from 1976 to 2017 found a sharp decline in teen group socializing that began in 2010 and continues to the present.10 This, researchers say, was despite a decline in the number of kids with after school jobs and little change in the amount of homework and extracurriculars..11 With the majority of their bonding time spent online, it’s no wonder that social media and the internet are beginning to shift the expectations young people have around what friendship looks like and what makes a good friend.
24-7 Accessibility – The UK Safer Internet Centre’s Digital Friendships survey found that most kids feel it’s important for friends to reply to their messages, like and comment on their social media posts.12 Some teens feel pressure to comply with these expectations 24-7. While others are putting boundaries around their availability. This constant accessibility has also changed the nature of bullying and abuse. Not only do some kids still deal with bullies at school, but they also get bullied online, too. Which means there’s nowhere to go for a reprieve.
What it Means to Be Good Friends – The Digital Friendships survey found that, on average, teens and tweens said you need a Snapchat streak of 73 days, or over two months, to show that you are good friends with someone.13 A Snapstreak, as they are called, begins when two people on Snapchat have “snapped” each other (sent each other a picture or video, not chatted) within 24 hours for more than three consecutive days.14 If one person misses a day, the count goes back to zero. This is an admittedly shrewd marketing idea by Snapchat that has likely caused more than a few teens to return to the platform more consistently than they might otherwise have done. Users know they’re on a streak when the person they’re snapping with has a flame icon next to their name. No one outside of the two people involved can see the streak which is an indication that keeping the streak going really only benefits the relationship (and Snapchat, of course). Snapchat is now so popular among teens and tweens that Snapstreaks have become something of a friendship barometer for that age group. Interestingly, in the Digital Friendships survey, boys reported needing a longer Snapchat streak to show they are a good friend (77) than girls (69).15
Popularity Markers— While Snapstreaks are just between you and a friend, a Snapchat score is a number that all your Snapchat friends can see. According to Snapchat, it’s determined “by a super-secret, special equation that combines the number of Snaps you’ve sent and received, the Stories you’ve posted, and a couple other factors [sic] 🤓”16 Casual users can quickly rack up a Snapchat score in the thousands. So kids with Snapchat scores in the high tens- or hundreds of thousands are usually considered popular. There is a point, however, where a Snapchat score can be too high for some people’s liking. Though the exact figure varies by individual, for some people a high Snapchat score is an indication of an indiscriminate user.17,18
Please Like Me – Boys in the Digital Friendship survey reported that they need more likes and followers on Instagram than girls do to feel happy. On average, boys required 59 likes on an Instagram post to feel happy, in comparison to girls who said they need 45 likes. The greatest difference between boys and girls was in the number of Instagram followers they needed to feel happy, with boys on average reporting they needed 246 followers in comparison to girls who on average needed 186 followers.19 FOMO – Girls in the Digital Friendships survey were more likely to say they feel left out when friends post things on social media they weren’t included in. Boys were more likely to feel left out when friends didn’t invite them to play games online.20
Tell Me Who Your Friends Are – In some communities, teens and tweens only friend others on social media that they know in person. When a young person befriends people they don’t know online in these communities, they can sometimes be judged by local peers as weird or trying too hard to collect friends online. While in other communities, making friends online is common.
In the US, the 2018 Pew Teen Survey found that the likelihood of a teen making a friend online was determined by their parent’s level of education. It’s more common among teens whose parent holds a high school diploma or less (24%) than among teens whose parent has a bachelor’s or advanced degree (9%).21 As a group, US teens are much less likely to make new friends online than those in the UK. Only 15% of US 13- to 18-year-olds had a good friend they first met online.22 While 49% of 13- to 17-year-olds in the UK Safer Internet Centre survey met a friend online they wouldn’t have met otherwise.23

Therapist Training:

Intro to Digital Media Overuse:
Assessment, Intervention & Treatment

A live, online, clinical training with two leading experts in the field of digital media overuse and addiction.
October 7, 2022
9:00 AM - 5:15 PM MDT
NBCC-approved for 6 CE Hours.

Early Bird
deadline 9/19/22

Peer Group Rituals Changed by the Internet

In the late 1970s, 52 percent of 12th-graders got together with their friends almost every day.24 By 2017, only 28 percent did. The same study that found teenagers attended fewer parties in 2017 than their 1980’s counterparts unearthed an interesting dynamic.

According to one of the study’s authors, Jean Twenge, the 2017 teens were less inclined to attend in-person group events because they gathered in groups online all the time.25 There were some more “social” teens, according to Twenge, who still wanted to get together in person despite being active online with friends. This correlates with previous studies that show that teens who use social media more often also socialize in person more often. But it results in an overall reduction in the amount of group get-togethers experienced by the 2017 teens as a whole. This, Twenge says, takes the “issue” beyond an individual one and makes it a generational one.

Romantic rituals changed by the internet

Technology is also central to teenagers’ dating lives. While they may not meet their romantic interest online, (they aren’t technically allowed on dating apps before they are 18), most utilize social media in important ways. One is to figure out whether a crush they met offline is dating material. By scrolling through someone’s posting history, a teenager can discern whether they have similar enough interests and values to warrant a “deep like.” What’s a deep like? That’s when you like a post from deep in someone’s posting history. It’s a hint that you’ve been spending time on their profile and therefore are interested.

This online dance can go on for days, weeks or even months before anyone makes a move to actually text one-on-one and even longer before they meet in person. At any point in the process, of course, the whole thing can fall apart.

None of this considers the riskier ways that some teens are using digital technology to meet romantic partners. Platforms like Discord and Grindr are popular with teenagers who may have difficulty connecting with kids at school or other parts of their offline world. We’ll get into those in greater detail in part two of this series.

Resources to Continue Your Therapist Training on True Digital Natives


1.Nat, T. (1995, September). The Cyberspace Cowboy. Australian Personal Computer, 2–4. Interview with John Perry Barlow, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder.

2.Grossman, L. (2007, November 1). Invention of the Year. Time.,28804,1677329_1678542_1677891,00.html

3. Hansell, S. (2006, September 12). Site Previously for Students Will Be Opened to Others.. The New York Times

4. The App Store turns 10. (2018, July 5). Apple Newsroom; Apple Inc.

5. Armstrong, C. M., Ortigo, K. M., Avery-Leaf, S. N., & Hoyt, T. V. (2019). Cultural considerations in using mobile health in clinical care with military and veteran populations. Psychological services, 16(2), 276–280.

6. Whaley, A. L., & Davis, K. E. (2007). Cultural competence and evidence-based practice in mental health services: A complementary perspective. American Psychologist, 62(6), 563–574.

7. Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018, November 28). 2. Teens, friendships and online groups. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

8. Digital Friendships: the role of technology in young people’s relationships (2018, February 5).; UK Safer Internet Centre.

9. Twenge, J. M., et, al. (2019). Less in-person social interaction with peers among U.S. adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(6), 1892–1913.

10. Twenge, 2019

11. Twenge, 2019.

12. Digital Friendships, 2018.
13. Digital Friendships, 2018.

14. Snapstreaks. (2016, April 18).; Snap Inc.

15.Digital Friendships, 2018.

16. My Score. (2013, October 6).; Snap Inc.

17.What snap score is too high for you? (n.d.). The Student Room; The Student Room Group Ltd. Retrieved August 26, 2021, from

18. Are there benefits to having a high SnapChat score? If so, what are they? – Quora. (2019, August 21).; Quora, Inc.
19. Digital Friendships, 2018.

20. Digital Friendships, 2018.

21. Anderson, 2018.

22. Anderson, 2018.

23. Digital Friendships, 2018.

24. Twenge, 2019

25. Twenge, 2019 Twenge, 2019.