The Imaginary Audience in the Teen Years

The Imaginary Audience Stems from Adolescent Egocentrism

Teen Skater
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The "imaginary audience" is a label for teens' and older tweens' belief that a group of followers exists who constantly watch and judge their every move. The belief arises from the larger concept of adolescent egocentrism, that teens think the world revolves around them and that everyone is paying attention to how they look and what they do. This is a normal phase of social development in teens.

The Imaginary Audience is Watching and Judging

The normal egocentric adolescent believes that wherever he goes, everyone around him is as interested in him as he is in himself.

He also believes his audience is continually commenting on his actions and appearance. It's like being a celebrity...except no one is actually watching. That can sound like paranoia, but it is a normal part of growing up and learning to function socially.

The mood of the audience varies with the adolescent's mood. When the tween or teen is feeling self-critical, she thinks that others will be highly judgmental of her behavior and appearance. When she is in a self-adoring mood, she thinks that others will be equally wrapped up in her beauty, grace and magnetic personality.

Adolescents' belief in the imaginary audience explains some of their moodiness. Even private moments feel public to them. This is why teens and older tweens frequently become embarrassed over minor events. For instance, if dad makes a silly joke in a restaurant, it doesn't matter to the adolescent that no one around them seemed to be listening, everyone will still (somehow) know.

The Imaginary Audience is a Normal Part of Growing Up

Adolescent egocentrism is a normal part of development, not a sign that your child will be a narcissist or have paranoia as an adult. Researchers are tying it to how the brain reorganizes itself during the tween and teen years to become a mature adult brain.

Sensitivity to social situations is a part of that brain and personality development.

It can be exasperating for a parent to see their teen change his shirt five times before heading to school, with most of the choices appearing almost identical. But this is normal teen behavior.

Theories about the Imaginary Audience

The term imaginary audience was given by David Elkind in a paper in 1967. He developed an Imaginary Audience Scale. The concept entered general use by psychologists. The scores correlated with social anxiety, sense of self and personality but not with formal reasoning. While Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget thought the personal audience was a feature of childhood, these studies found that it persisted to college age.

Concepts about adolescent egocentrism continue to develop. In an age of social media, adolescents are even more exposed to personal and social consequences of what they do and how they look. The internal audience may be reinforced by the greatly expanded real audience who now have access to them.

Sources:

Elkind, PhD, David. Egocentrism in Adolescence. Child Development. 1967. 38: 1025-1034.

Elkind D, Bowen R. Imaginary audience behavior in children and adolescents. Developmental Psychology. 1979;15(1):38–44.

Gunnar MR, Wewerka S, Frenn K, Long JD, Griggs C. Developmental changes in hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal activity over the transition to adolescence: Normative changes and associations with puberty. Development and Psychopathology. 2009;21:69–85.

Somerville LH. Special issue on the teenage brain: Sensitivity to social evaluation. Current directions in psychological science. 2013;22(2):121-127. doi:10.1177/0963721413476512.

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