6. Shaping influences–human development

Picture two plants of the same species growing in two different environments. One seed is planted in a protected inland area with soft, rich soil and moderate water. Another grows on a rocky cliff near a sea with relentless winds. We can imagine the shrub inland might grow more upright and have a certain form, while the shrub near the water may grow at an angle from being windswept and could perhaps have a much different root pattern to adapt to the terrain.

Just as differences in soil, water, wind, and sun exposure can affect the long-term growth of a shrub or tree–such as it is with humans. This simple analogy can help us understand the different agents that shape our young.

In previous postings, I’ve discussed the shaping influences of education on the next generation. Education is but only one factor among many which cultivate young people. Like the shrub, there are many other elements that help form a person such as: parents, peer relationships, other mentor/coach relationships, media (TV, social media, music), online interactions, and other cultural influences with people, objects and systems–some having a more desirable influence than others.

Developmental psychologist, Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, created a theory that considered all of the shaping influences on the development of a child. As seen in the figure below, the child is placed at the center with the various shaping influences represented in the circles.

Bronfenbrenner's Bioecological Model Graphic

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model with tech subsystem. Please see end of post for references.

The inner circle represents the most direct interaction with parents, friends and objects. Family plays the most prominent role in the development of a child. A healthy family v. one of dysfunction has a significant impact on the way a human develops. Next are the various environments of that individual’s family and area in which they live. The outer circle considers the most dominant societal norms and values situated in a given point in history, while the circles in between represent various systems which have indirect influences through the microsystem. Finally, the orange ring in the center represents how technology can now mediate many of our direct interactions with our world and one another. The buycbdproducts these various systems interrelate can be rather complex in the way they work in combination on the development of a person. Altogether, these “surface areas” have a shaping effect on the organism which form who a person, or what a generation becomes.

Education is just one hand among many shaping the development of a young generation.

Yet, consider the time period in which someone was born. My grandmother used to save aluminum foil—why? She was a product of her times, having lived through the Great Depression. Historic events such as 9/11 can significantly define people, particularly during their formative years.

Technology is another huge influence. Never before has mankind lived in times where we can experience so much of our relationships with other humans through technology: smart phones, Facebook, chat, texting, instant messaging, email, etc. In fact, it’s possible to spend more time in technology-mediated interactions with others than face-to-face.

Do you think this is having an effect on a young generation? On humankind? What are the long term implications?

A few months ago, a 25-year-old apologized to me for looking at his phone when calls and texts were disrupting our meeting. I pondered out loud, “You don’t know what it was like before answering machines, do you? If someone called and no one was there…” He frantically interrupted, “You mean no caller ID, no nothing? What would you do?!” I replied, “You’d wait.” A reality without answering machines and caller ID was almost unfathomable to him. His entire lived-experience always had the convenience of such technologies.This led into a discussion of how people can be offended if a text is not replied to in a timely manner, which turned into a conversation about how these small technological devices are fundamentally changing our culture and the way people relate–particularly the younger generations.

Technology, specifically smart phones, fragment human relationships. In other words, people tend to communicate more in little snippets throughout the day rather than longer face-to-face conversations. Not to mention most of those conversations become broken up by other intermittent calls, texts or tweets. This also alters our attention spans.

Technology shapes society.

Similarly, political environments, educational systems, economic conditions, as well as prevailing norms and values all shape society. Society shapes how humans develop just as environments shape how plants grow.

Bronfrenbrenner’s model serves as a wonderful paradigm to understand childhood and adolescent development. We can surmise how different “surface areas” in the formative years may have long-term sculpting effects on young people. As a generation grows, how will today’s formation define society decades in the future?

Yet human development does not stop at some magical point after adolescence. Though most influences certainly have more impact in the formative years, humans continue to develop throughout the lifespan making the bioecological model useful for social analysis at any age.

Society shapes humans. 

This may seem obvious, but what is not obvious is how.  Only time can tell what a generation will be in the future, and for that matter, how insidious changes in society are affecting all of us. Small changes over time can dramatically mold us without our even knowing. It is nearly impossible to step out of the society in which we are a part of to view it impartially, as we are bound by the times and experiences in which we live. There is no objective reference point.

I ponder these things often. I also consider the interplay between the micro-psychological processes of human development and the macro-effects on society through time. Bronfenbrenner considered the same, and at the risk of redundancy I’ll repeat his quote from a prior post:

“There is no more critical indicator of the future of a society than the character, competence, and integrity of its youth.”

How are we shaping a future generation? What are the shaping influences? Where is this going? What is the trajectory of our society?

Does anyone stop to think?


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Johnson, G., & Puplampu, K. (2008). Internet use during childhood and the ecological techno-subsystem.Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 34(1).

The graphic represents Bronfenbrenner’s original bioecological theory with the addition of the techno-subsystem as referenced in (Johnson & Puplampu). To use the graphic in a thesis or dissertation, please cite this blog post. For other uses please contact me at dl@vt.edu.

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5 Responses to 6. Shaping influences–human development

  1. Ralph says:

    This is very interesting. A tough/confusing age to be young!

  2. Jonathan says:

    Interesting post. Looking back at all of your posts it really seems like this is more of an introduction into your whole base of study. “How” these enablers within the Microsystem and the Exosystem impact our youth/society. You have touched on various aspects already: How the obsessive encouragement of family and friends in society make ‘failure’ something our youth have trouble dealing with. How both the pressures of our school system and the system itself lead students on a path out of societal necessity rather than personal necessity. etc. Either way, it makes for an interesting read. I find myself asking “Well what’s the solution!! Please just solve the conundrum!!” but I am from the Now Generation after-all…

  3. Sam says:

    This is a bit tangential, but: is Facebook more of a reflection of our youth (and now adult generations as well) or a sculptor of it? What would Urie say?

    • Not tangential at all, that question is right on. It’s a bi-lateral relationship. For decades there has been a separate ‘youth culture,’ yet Facebook has allowed for a different dimension of that to exist. So at first youth culture in essence shaped Facebook. However, through time social media or “relational technologies” such as Facebook actually end up changing the way humans relate to one another because it has provided a different space for people to interact. Thus mediums like Facebook end up sculpting youth culture and therefore youth. Anyway, at some point it’s hard to tell which is having more of the influence, the human on the environment or the other way around? His theory actually didn’t just consider the environment on humans, rather he was concerned with the process of the interaction between organism and environment over time–which he called the proximal process. Fundamental development occurs within the proximal process and environmental influences could foster healthy development or be a disruptive influence. There isn’t a ton of conclusive research yet, but the question I’m subtly raising is that things such as Facebook could indeed be a disruptive influence to human development. Jim Styer comes to mind who has done specific work on the effect of Facebook on youth talkingbacktofacebook.com. Bronfenbrenner did say that we humans have altered the nature and course of our own development as a species.

  4. David Lecko says:

    I’m a little late discovering this, but enjoyed this post. Talking Back to Facebook looks like a great guide for raising kids in the digital age. Should we also be looking for a guide for college students & young adults, assuming digital may be more influential now then when these people were kids?

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