Social peers as moving away from the social

Social
withdrawal is not a new term. For example, the discipline of developmental
psychology has been witnessing research study in the area of children and
adolescents suffering from social withdrawal or social isolation, who are
characterized by shyness, unsociability, aloneness and peer avoidance.
Empirical studies informed by this theoretical perspective suggest that
socially withdrawn children or students are more likely to lead a negative
developmental trajectory, as they are at major risk of failing to develop
social and interpersonal skills resulted from interactive experiences with
peers. Such studies and theories frame children and youth who are socially
disengaged from peers as moving away from the social environment, and thus
efforts made in the promotion of a more supportive peer environment and
cultivation of pro-social or interactive behavior on the side of individuals
are considered important in preventing further moving away from the world from
taking place. From a psychopathological perspective, social withdrawal behavior
and the negative parenting style are largely the targets of professional intervention (Coplan,
Prakash, O’Neil, & Armer, 2004).

Being
alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. Loneliness is conceptualized as
negative solitude experience because of its painful and potentially harmful nature
which entails more than social isolation and reflects the sufferings of not
connected to and valued by others. However, solitude or aloneness, if it is
planned and preferred may be productive in nature which may enhance one’s
knowledge of one’s self and identity and the social environment, and provides
relief from the pressures involved interacting with other people and living in
the world. If it is the case of involving a greater understanding of oneself
and the world and/or leading to a higher level of concentration, it may be a
path to greater meaning and more rewards, which is conducive to generating
positive benefit. For example, with a determination to finish their work, young
authors of a middle-class background, or with sufficient backup of financial
resources, may be able to tune out from social life for a long period of time
without being trapped in hardship or poverty. This is of course a personal
choice striving for a personal goal which is to be achieved or rewarded sooner
or later. Nobody would define this as a social withdrawal problem to be
intervened or tackled. In some cases, the benefit of solitude may be considered
as ‘negative’ in the sense of retreating from unpleasant situation before or
after one is burnt out. Productive solitude generating either positive or
negative benefit in the form of withdrawal from social life may be interpreted
as a personal choice of young people in managing the extent to which they want
to engage with or disengage from others. No social work professionals can
afford to overlook the agency of young people and their meanings attached to
the experience of solitude. If not, they may fail to appreciate the productive
side of social withdrawal at best, and acknowledge the intention or motivation
behind solitude or seclusion at worst. 

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The
discussion so far illustrates that the moving away of young people from the
social environment may be desirable or undesirable. It all depends on which
perspective one intends to take into consideration and the impact of the moving
away on young people.

However,
the social environment can be conceptualized as moving away or even against
young people who are confronted with increasing challenges not only in
developing relations with their peers but also in participating in major social
institutions deemed important to achieving the purpose of youth transitions to
adulthood. Such an understanding goes against the thesis of ‘underclass’ in
shaping the ideological ways of thinking about disaffected, dangerous, work-shy
young men and irresponsible, promiscuous, immoral young women who, together,
threaten ‘the survival of free institutions and a civil society’. More
structurally-oriented perspectives of youth transitions or stronger forms of
social exclusion emphasize the role of policy and organizational efforts in
reducing the powers of exclusion against young people. Those young people who
are not in education, employment or training (youth NEET), have personal,
emotional, or behavioral problems, and experience discrimination through age
lone or combined with other factors like race, ethnicity, disability, single
parenthood, homelessness, etc.. Reaching a thorough understanding of
disaffection experienced by vulnerable youth groups cannot go without
deconstructing the social processes and structures leading to social exclusion.
The term ‘social withdrawal’ was originated from the discipline of
developmental psychology, which is obviously more individualist in nature,
which places emphasis on assisting socially-withdrawn young people to rebuild
self-image and regain self-confidence, and to encourage them to reestablish
communication and interactions with their friends and peers in particular. This
is precisely the solutions emphasized by the ‘weak’ version of social
exclusion, which lie in altering those excluded or isolated individuals’
disabling characteristics so as to enhance their social inclusion or social
integration. The studies on the positive and negative notions of solitude or
aloneness can inform youth work practitioners the importance of agency in
assigning meanings to withdrawal experience and the policy makers and social
welfare organizations alike in designing measures and delivering programs that
are more tailor-made to serving the specific needs of each youth. That is,
youth should not be taken as a homogeneous group, and they are in reality
characterized by differences and diversity that should not be ironed out both
in terms of policy formulation and service intervention. The stronger version
of social exclusion can shed light on understanding how social environment at
large moves away or against young people experienced with their transition
trajectories characterized by ups and downs and fractures. Nevertheless, the
emphasis of research in western societies has been placed on examining or tackling
the problems of young people who are behaviorally anti-social or aggressive (at
least in the eyes of adults and the authority), homeless or of criminal
background, etc.. There has not been any study in the West explicitly using the
social exclusion perspective to study the newly emerging yet growing phenomenon
of social withdrawal experienced by young people. Before arguing that social
withdrawal is an extreme form of social exclusion, the next two sessions
discuss the research methodology of the study and then in what way youth in
social withdrawal are different from those young people being disconnected,
disengaged or excluded from social institutions understood in a conventional
sense (Coplan, Prakash, O’Neil, &
Armer, 2004).