Teenagers and the Internet: can we survive them?
A few months ago, Frontline aired an episode on Teens and the Internet: “Growing up Online.” I had missed it when it first appeared, but I was sure to catch it when it aired again this week. It was a sober, balanced look at the influence of technology’s influence on the next generation, and as a reasonable, Internet-savvy adult, I watched it and felt sheer, unadulterated terror.
Ever since then it, I’ve been wondering why. It wasn’t an alarmist piece. And yet I could barely sit still through it. I tried to watch it again online (you can see the entire show on their site), and it scared me again. I found myself wondering, how could we avoid the whole Internet topic, with Henry? Could we maybe turn Amish? Can someone turn Amish? What am I talking about?
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, I frighten easily. I was once paralyzed with fear over a show on the Predictions of Nostradamus, hosted by Jonathan Frakes. Hey, I was young. No more than 27. And Jonathan Frakes is scary, with those Rasputin eyes of his.
But what was it about this show? There was something about those teens on the show, those teens with their complex teen-only online communities they’ve formed. It was a little too Lord of the Flies for me. I saw my influence as a parent dwindling away as my child spent hours with his virtual family. Readers, I panicked.
I should have been reassured by much of it. For one, the show provides a calming counterpoint to the fear-mongering regarding online predators. The consensus from experts and kids alike on the show is that the risk is overstated. Kids are, if nothing else, not easily fooled, these days. As Rachel Dretzin, producer of the documentary, observes, “The vast majority of kids who do end up having contact with a stranger they meet over the Internet are seeking out that contact…all the kids we met, without exception, told us the same thing: They would never dream of meeting someone in person they’d met online.”
I buy this. I can imagine that the Internet-predator hype is something akin to bloggers being warned that posting photos of their children online is akin to advertising to molesters. Not to say that there’s no danger at all, of course. But most studies have shown that the real threat to children’s safety comes from friends and family.
The threat of cyberbullying, on the other hand, is quite real, and is also what scares me out of my pants. The show focused on the story of Ryan Halligan, who committed suicide at the age of thirteen after being tormented online by some of his classmates. The sight of this angel-faced boy smiling into the video camera as his father, off-camera, asked why he had to do it–it was almost too much for me to bear. And why yes, I am crying right now, just thinking about it.
As someone who has been on the web for years in various capacities, I’ve experienced my share of public criticism. Usually the criticism has been mild and fleeting, and each time I’ve been reduced to a quivery mass of self-doubt. And I’m an adult, I’ve been told. Someone who should be able to dismiss the naysayers. (Who are also adults, and have at least a teensy sense of decorum, even when they’re obviously mouth-breathers who can barely string a sentence together.) I can’t imagine being subjected to online criticism as a kid. Because when I was that age, I was also on the receiving end of the occasional taunting campaign. These were also relatively mild and fleeting, but if they had occurred online—with the words there for me to reread over and over—the effect would have been much more devastating.
But then, shouldn’t that reassure me, even if this happened to Henry that I would understand more than the average parent might? The parents featured on Frontline were flummoxed by their children’s relationship with the Internet, but parents like myself, we’re as close to experiencing that same relationship as any adults are going to get. Maybe we won’t be as lost and bewildered as these parents seem, dealing with teenagers in this strange new world. We’ve already experienced much of what our kids might be exposed to. Maybe?
I sought out some noted bloggers who also happen to parent teenagers, and seem to be still be standing and breathing. How do they do it? Jenn Satterwhite of Mommy Needs Coffee drove the main point home: ” You have to have good communication with your kid long before they venture out into the world of MySpace, etc… If you wait until your kids are old enough to be on MySpace before establishing ground rules and good communication, you are a step behind already.” Grace Davis from State of Grace concurred: what’s important is not controlling your child’s behavior on the Internet, but establishing, early on, a strong relationship with your child. She invested time and energy in her daughter Molly from the get-go, and now, she says, “The result of that investment is that Moll is a self-assured baby woman with strong self-esteem and boundaries, who gets along with pretty much everyone.” In other words, someone she trusts will engage with the world (and the World Wide Web) in a healthy way.
And then it hit me: I’m not so much afraid of Teens and the Internet as much as I am afraid of teens. That is, parenting one. What will my child grow up into? Will I survive his no longer wanting to marry me? It’s that not-knowing that I projected onto the spectre of the Internet, coming to take away my sweet boy. The loss of control you experience when your child turns into a semi-adult, capable of making his own decisions and mistakes, is exaggerated by the presence of the online world. The Internet makes it possible for them to escape your control even when you’re sitting in the same room. But no matter what, you lose control. It’s not the Internet that’s the problem. It’s focusing on the fear, instead of your child.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Lego building with Henry to attend to.