Neverending Texting, Frenetic Facebooking, and Puppy Piling: A weekend with teenagers

For reasons that don’t bear exploration, I spent a large chunk of my weekend with 20 teenagers.

I suppose it’s relevant that I was not a conventional teenager.  I know that revelation comes as a great shock to One Utah readers.  I never went to camp, I never wanted to go to some all night party and sneak liquor from so and so’s dad’s liquor cabinet and I never thought the stories my friends told of their wild adventures running around town and hanging out at the park sounded very interesting and I never wanted any part of those evenings.  I was perfectly happy to be curled up at home reading a book.

I found the experience this weekend educational if nothing else.

There was the whole the texting thing.  Since we were there as a group and doing group activities, one of ground rules was no cell phones during group time  and every couple hours we had a scheduled cell phone fix.  For the kids, giving up their cell phones was the hardest part of the weekend.  When they had a chance to name why their phones mattered, they all offered a variation on “My cell phone is the way I’m connected to people I love and care about and without it I feel as if I’m being told I can’t know what’s going on in their lives.”  Asking teens to give up their phones is asking them to deliberately isolate themselves from their friends and family and most of them aren’t ready to do that having only recently learned to value those connections.  For lots of kids, texting is as much about creating and maintaining their own emotional world as it is about communication.  Interestingly, there is an equally high level of hunger for actual face to face communication but they have little actual skill at that form of communication.  Given a chance to engage one another face to face, many of these teens ended up putting their phones aside and actually talking with one another.

For several of these teens, the opportunity to get on Facebook was like water to a person lost in the desert.  Given free time, they would literally grab the nearest computer and demand that the nearest adult enter the password to unlock the computer.  I have to confess I find Facebook an blackhole of energy and have tended to avoid it – the constant need to update the world with every thought that passes through one’s head drives me batty.  But, for some teens, Facebook is central to their social lives.  So with a moment of free time, they would immediately start updating.

Which brings me to the one phenomenon which baffles me – the puppy pile.

Walking into the sleeping rooms to check on the kids, the girls were in a giant pile – sprawled atop one another, arms and legs in a tangle mass of limbs, pillows, blankets, sleeping bags at every angle and in every direction.  Personal items were spilled everywhere – in some cases it actually looked as if someone was in the middle of brushing their hair and doing their makeup and had literally collapsed midway dropping ther items.  It was complete and utter visual chaos.  By contrast, the boy’s sleeping space was almost orderly – each boy was in his sleeping bag, head on his pillow.  Along the walls, the boys had piled their personal possessions.  Checking with other folks who have worked with teens, I was told what I saw was completely normal.  Girls sleep in the puppy pile, boys don’t.

I also found the puppy pile interesting because of another aspect – to the best of my knowledge, every one of these teenagers has his/her own bedroom.  These aren’t kids who normally share sleeping space so it’s not a habit for them.  Rather, finding themselves in a group, the girls instinctively puppy piled.  Given a chance to pile up, to sit on each other, to touch each other, stroke each other, write on each other, they jumped at it almost without thought – which suggests to me some sort of emotional need playing itself out.

We had two single gender control groups and a mixed gender experimental group.  Our mixed gender group slept in a circle, heads in the center feet pointing out.  The girls in this circle were sleeping with their arms on top of each other, the boys in their sleeping bags.  It wasn’t a puppy pile but it wasn’t the interesting neatness of the boys sleeping space either.  Seeing that suggests to me that there is something gender-based happening in the puppy pile.

I cannot imagine that the puppy pile is comfortable.  However, even just watching a movie, girls sprawl on top of each other, draping their arms and legs over one another.  In discussions, they’ll sit three girls to a chair and write on each other and draw on each others arms and legs, play with each other’s hair, poke each other, stroke each other’s faces.  Some boys get drawn into the pile – usually a boy who on whom one or several girls has a crush and who is flattered enough by the attention to put up with the pile.  A boy who sits with the girls gets the full treatment – they’ll play with his hair, stroke his feet, hold his hands.  Even the most tolerant boys seem able to put up with this for only so long before they pull away, resisting the overwhelming physical contact; the girls respond with utter confusion, literally chasing the boy to put his hair in a pony tail or just finish writing that one word on his arm.  It’s almost a reverse of the elementary school cliche where the boy pulls a girl’s hair when he likes her.  In this case, the girl’s almost frantic desire to be in contact with the one she likes drives her to distraction – and the boy to a very different kind of distraction.

Almost any time I see a group of teens in a room, the girls seem inevitably to end up in a giant pile.  I know some of what’s going on is developmental differences.  Girls obviously find the puppy pile comfortable, perhaps even comforting.  I would suggest that girls have real need to physically connect with one another to enhance their emotional connections.  I know it’s a cliche, but it seems to me that the boys want the same kinds of emotional connections but they get it and then need to back off and process and then get it again – the girls could lay in a giant pile for hours and not seem to get enough of the experience.  Louann Brizendine mentions in her book on the female brain that for women intimate talking, sharing secrets, is a huge hormone boost – an emotional high like nothing other than orgasm.  The puppy pile seems to to enhance that experience. 

If you look at these three dynamics, you see the same thing: it’s all about seeking connection with other people.  It suggests to me that even among emotionally well adjusted teens, the desire for emotional connection is profound and real.

  1. #1 by shane on January 24, 2011 - 1:07 pm

    Should I be disturbed that I always preferred the puppy pile? Exactly what happened to me that I am good with that, and in fact have to remind myself that when the kids want to pile up I can’t let them do it around me (oh my the parents would talk) but I still want my possessions lined up orderly against the wall?

    Except for the marking on the arms. I really don’t understand the female need to write/draw on people. That just doesn’t make sense to me at all.

    • #2 by Glenden Brown on January 24, 2011 - 1:20 pm

      No, you should not be disturbed. What I was told was the the pile is mostly girls but sometimes it’s both. I have never liked the puppy pile – even as an adult I can’t imagine anything worse than a cuddle party which is the adult answer to the pile.

      The drawing on people? Yeah I have no idea. Hugo Schwyzer has posted about it – talking about how his female partners seem to have an almost uncontrollable urge to engage in social grooming.

  2. #3 by Hugo on January 24, 2011 - 7:11 pm

    Yes indeed, girls do like to groom! And I’ve seen both sexes do puppy piles on high school youth retreats, though the boys would only do the piles when there were girls and boys mixed together. The girls had no problem with all-female piles. As expected, given levels of internalized homophobia and anxiety.

    Great post.

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