The Lead - June 24, 2007 -
Is The Web Dangerous For Teens?
As any one under 30 can tell you, the most important trend in Internet culture has been the rise of the so-called Web 2.0, which is the use of the Internet for social networking through such sites as Face Book and MySpace.
The most recent article of Atlantic features an often frightening exploration of the implications of the rise of the Web 2.0 for parents of American teenagers. First, Flanagan notes that these sites expose our children to the world--and the world to them--at a much younger age than before:
The history of civilization is the history of sending children out into the world. The child of a 17th-century weaver would have been raised and educated at home, prey to the diseases and domestic accidents of his time, but protected from strangers who meant him harm. As the spheres of home and work began to separate, cleaving parents from their sons and daughters, children faced dangers of an altogether different kind. The world is not, nor has it ever been, full of people who prey upon children. But it has always had more than enough of them, and it always will. . . . With the Internet, children are marching out into the world every second of every day. They’re sitting in their bedrooms—wearing their retainers, topped up with multivitamins, radiating the good care and safekeeping that is their lot in life in America at the beginning of the new century—and they’re posting photographs of themselves, typing private sentiments, unthinkingly laying down a trail of bread crumbs leading straight to their dance recitals and Six Flags trips and Justin Timberlake concerts, places where anyone with an interest in retainer-wearing 13-year-olds is free to follow them. All that remains to be seen is whether anyone will follow them, and herein lies a terrifying uncertainty, which neither skeptics nor doomsayers can deny: The Internet has opened a portal into what used to be the inviolable space of the home, through which anything, harmful or harmless, can pass. It won’t be closing anytime soon—or ever—and all that parents can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
And the incidence of predation appears to be more prevalent than parents seem to realize:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintains that one out of five kids who use the Internet has been propositioned for sex. It’s hard to know just how accurately such events can be quantified, and when I first read the statistic, I found it hard to believe that, if indeed so many children were being propositioned, more parents weren’t uniting in outrage, rather than wiring up their kids at a blistering pace. My friends with teenagers were very open with them and were well-informed about the dangers of the Internet; I couldn’t imagine one out of five of those kids being propositioned by a stranger and not telling their parents.
But Hansen provides a second bit of information that made me wonder if that statistic wasn’t in fact on the low side. As part of the first episode of his show, Hansen convened a panel of tweens and teens, among them children of some of his colleagues at NBC, and asked how many of them had been “approached online by someone in a sexual way that made you feel uncomfortable.” Almost all the kids raised their hands. Then he asked how many had told their parents. Not a hand went up. And when he asked why they hadn’t told their parents, all the kids in the room said they didn’t tell because they didn’t want their parents to take away their Internet connections.
Suddenly, it all made sense to me: Teenagers don’t tell their parents that someone nasty got through to them for the same reason I didn’t tell my parents that kids were dropping acid at a party—because they wouldn’t let me go to those parties anymore. That’s the horrible, inescapable fact of coming of age: The moment you choose the world over your parents, you’ve chosen to make your own decisions about what’s safe and what’s not, with only your own wits to protect you.
Yet, perhaps the most troubling aspect of these social networking sites is not the obvious dangers of predation, but rather that this technology amphlifies the worst features of teen culture:
Most parents of teenage girls with Internet connections will tell you that their daughters’ physical safety isn’t in jeopardy—they’ve taken all kinds of precautions they think ensure this—but that the online experience is doing nothing for the girls’ peace of mind. Not many people are as ill-served by having their natterings subjected to instantaneous, global transmission as adolescent girls. In the first place, these girls’ feelings can be hurt by even a well-intentioned comment or question, and having a caustic remark that would have been bad enough if kept between two people suddenly unleashed to the whole clique, team, or school can be a wretched experience. Furthermore, because this new technology can make the old girl standbys of gossip and social exclusion and taunting more efficient—and therefore more cruel—many girls arrive at school each morning having experienced the equivalent of a public hazing in the privacy of their own rooms. While Johnny’s upstairs happily sneaking hard-core pornography past his Internet filter, poor Judy is next door weeping into her pillow because everyone in the eighth grade now knows that she still uses pads, not tampons. (Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Mom and Dad are trying to figure out how to watch Dancing With the Stars now that the remote’s on the fritz again.)
. . .
Some of the most harmless aspects of MySpace would have crushed me at 14. Members get to list their “Top 8” friends, a list they can change at whim. It’s an ingenious number, because it’s just large enough to make exclusion really hurt—eight people, and there wasn’t any room at all for me?
One of the great paradoxes of our age is that at the exact moment when a huge number of teachers, parents, and school administrators have dedicated themselves to the emotional well-being and self-confidence of adolescent girls, a technology has come along that’s virtually guaranteed to undermine that confidence. A girl can go to school and happily discover that it’s possible for her to become a scientist when she grows up, but that may be cold comfort when she comes home to discover that five people just dropped her from their Top 8.
Read the entire essay here (subscription required).
These sites are here to stay--and are already an important part of teen culture. What can parents, educators and youth leaders do in response? Should our congregations address the implications of this new social trend in their youth programs?