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Teenagers and the Internet: can we survive them?

By Alice Bradley

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.


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Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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I would just like to point out that we all invest time and energy in our children from the “get-go,” much like Grace Davis; but even that doesn’t guarantee that you will get a teen with “strong self-esteem and boundaries.” I currently have 2 teens (with 4 more coming up): the oldest I trust completely on the Internet (although I still have access to his accounts); the other, not at all. Every child is different and will require varying levels of supervision on the Internet. The key here is to be vigilant, try to have open lines of communication (believe… Read more »


Oh thank you so much for finally articulating my fears way better than I ever could have. People say “aw, if they could only stay this age forever.” And I’m like no you don’t understand…they MUST stay this age forever. I’m terrified of anything else.
Our best bet is that by the time our kids hit the scary years, the internet will have imploded and all bullies will have some kind of parole-style ankle bracelet that automatically shocks them when they get out of line.


I can relate to feeling overwhelmed with trepidation at the thought of our children dealing with adult issues in a completely different environment. My daughter is 3 1/2, and after watching “High School Confidential” on We. It’s a documentary series on girls in a high school in Kansas over 4 years (have you SEEN that show? GOOD GOD, the preponderance of teenage pregnancy in ONE SCHOOL alone sent me over the edge- not to mention other issues high school girls are inundated with: drug and alcohol abuse, sex, eating disorders, depression), I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I had convinced… Read more »


Doesn’t anybody remember that there were actual physical bullies when we were teenagers? I can’t imagine that someone taunting me virtually could be anymore painful than them taunting me in person. There is nothing new under the sun.

Kristin (aka Krisco)

I don’t know (re Deanna’s comment). There were bullies when we were young – but anonymous bullies, bullies posing as other people they may or may not be, bullies with no social restraints on them (the principal or kids from an upper grade will NOT be walking around the corner unexpectedly to maybe interrupt) – seems to be a different breed altogether.
I’m with Liz. I hope by then the internet has been “fixed” and if not ankle bracelets, by then we actually know who people are online. Losing that fake identity will immediately inhibit cruelty, I think.


Alice, I watched the same show (the second time around) and had exactly the same reaction. Watching Ryan Halligan’s dad, listening to his regret and doubts, feeling his sadness was just too much. I so appreciate the input of the moms with older kids – my oldest is a tween, so we are just on the verge of all of this. I’m thankful that as a blogger I have some clue of what we’re in for, but the world is moving fast. I had absolutely no idea that one day I would look back at the infant and toddler stages… Read more »


This was an excellent post–you articulated so well my own fears. And I’ve got one on the cusp of teenagerhood (less than 2 months to go), and already we are seeing some of the behaviours, grunting and examining us with newly critical eyes, not to mention zits.


I agree with Deanna – I can’t imagine that on-line taunting is as bad as in person, up close and personal, taunting, which I experienced in high school. There is a difference on line. You can just turn off the computer. But if a bunch of creeps are gathered together mocking you in front of everyone else, and you have no way of leaving the room or escaping, that is worse, to me. I totally agree about the fear of having teens. It’s one reason I chose not to have children. Unlike most people who imagine sweet babies, I imagined… Read more »


Oh, Alice. Just wait until your child calls you “retarded”(more than once) and, no, I did not raise him to refer to people that way. He used to be as sweet as pie. The good news is that there are a lot of smart, nice teens out there. I’ve seen them! They’re just not living in my house. The better news (for me) is that there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. I just may get him back one day. Just in time for the next one to start up.


I recently graduated from teenagerhood, and have had an e-mail/instant messenging account since at least fifth grade. My parents weren’t super on top of all my online activities, but they did teach me the fundamentals about not giving out personal information and stuff, so I feel like I was fairly responsible. However, I was exposed to some things that I look back on now and wished I hadn’t been. Mainly, mass-forwarded e-mails with inappropriate content. If MySpace had been around when I was younger, my innocence would have been toast. Even though there are more potentially harmful things out on… Read more »

Carolyn Slater

I just referenced this blog entry in one of my posts. I take a positive attitude towards teens’ fearless use of technology and how it’s an integral part of their lives. We can’t stop evolution, so let’s embrace it and see the upside of it.


I heartily concur with this. I have a 16 year old daughter, adopted from Russia 3 1/2 years ago. I have had a terrible time getting her to understand the dangers of the internet, and I am not sure I can trust her – simply because she is so naive. A friend of mine who watched her after school let her “play” on the computer and she put our name, address, and phone number everywhere. We had to get an unlisted phone. She also has opened up accounts, viewed inappropriate content when she was supposed to be tutoring her little… Read more »