Raising Teens, part 2.

Face of the future, or faceless enemy?  Kids and social media.

This series was first published in the Island Word between February and June, 2012.

When Serena was a child, certain TV programs were not allowed at home, including shows that glorified violence (ie, Gunsmoke) and the boomer’s version of vampire delight: Dark Shadows. Nonetheless, she and her siblings loved these shows. They watched them, of course, at their friend’s houses, and at grandma’s house.

There was only one catch to this clandestine TV watching. It could be scary. The night they slept along in the travel trailer after a particularly chilling episode of Dark Shadows, Serena and her sister shivered with every breeze and snap of twig in their grandparents’ back yard. But could they go inside and admit defeat? Never! Because to do that would lead to disclosure of why they were afraid, which would lead to “I told you not to watch that show.”

What goes around comes around, and it seems that Serena’s mother’s favorite curse (“may you have the children you deserve”) may have come to pass in the age of Facebook. We thought that 16 was a good age to allow a Facebook account. After all, it’s rather like driving, in that it can take a child far outside of their parents’ loving, guiding gaze and into territory where bad things can, and do, happen. But sure enough, the kids will find a way. Even at school or in the library, they can easily do now exactly what we wanted them to wait a few more years to do. Only, without our consent, a false identity was necessary. And if they did get themselves in over their heads, there was an additional barrier to parental guidance: they didn’t want to tell on themselves.

So there it is, folks. Counsellors make mistakes. In our defense, we are not counselors or psychologists all of the time. In the long, unpaid hours of parenthood, our attention tends to wander, and we are as prone as the next person to emotions, dreams, and wishful thinking about our children. We underestimated the impatience of children to taste forbidden fruit and to be trusted as adults, and we found our authority rendered irrelevant when we couldn’t lay down the law, so to speak.

Facebook and other social media are the automobile of our generation: they are the thing that our children run wild with while we scatch our heads and wonder whether and how to control the damage. They present undreamed-of powers: to try on different identities, to find kindred spirits across geographical barriers, to become directly involved in causes, and to get instant information on everything from what your best friend is wearing to school tomorrow, to what kind of government reigns in Zimbabwe, to how to make an atomic bomb or an origami crane. Even the schools are on-board, and we are hard pressed to find educational options that support our quaint notion that children really ought to spend their first 15 years or so in the three-dimensional, multisensory world we like to call “reality”.

The automobile brought in the roaring twenties, and nourished the youth culture of the 1950’s. It took a few decades to bring in such safeguards as licenses, speed limits, and crash-tested car safety by design. Where will the internet take us? It will take generations to know.

By the time they reach college or university-age, the good effects of the internet are visible in this generation of young people. They are more aware, and more caring, toward events around the world then even we boomers could have been. National Geographic and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom were wonderful introductions to the world beyond our doorsteps, but they pale next to the possibilities of online learning, which offers the added opportunity for direct involvement. “Click here to feed an African child for a day,” and “Share this story on your facebook status” buttons put real powers of change at our fingers, and this re-making of democracy appears to be our best hope for a future beyond spreading tyranny and planetary destruction. It is as though they all live in the crossroads of trade routes; those places where ideas as well as commercial goods are brought to a common market and where business, if not benevolence, leads us to broaden our minds.

For some, this richness of diversity is literally life-saving in its ability to offer a niche of understanding and belonging for everyone. If your tribe cannot be found at home, you can be certain of finding it online. Gay. Lesbian, Transgendered and Bisexual teens now have a way to find community and acceptance. Those with shared history, be it personal (as with abuse survivors) or so big as to be built into one’s epigenetic blueprint (as with second- and third-generation children of war), can find each. Life is less isolating than it used to be for all kinds of people.

One dark side of all of this diversity is that one can also find social support for any position, including the some very stifling and even dangerous ones, online. There are groups of pro-Anorexics who exchange tips on how to resist treatment, and White Supremicists who spread the rationale and practice of discrimination. Discussions of even the most illogical, ignorant or cruel ideas tend to reduce all participants to equality at the lowest level. Teens do not have the maturity or the education to critically sift through this marketplace of ideas on their own. They are prone to extremism because of the all-or-nothing absolutism of their limited experience and cognitive processes: the answers are still theoretical, and therefore “right” or “wrong” to them. They will eventually have to make peace with ambiguity and with some forms of situational ethics. But for now, they tend to be ideologues.

A distinctly adolescent blend of over-developed judgementalism and under-developed compassion also contributes to social media’s most troublesome feature among teens: social cruelty. Exposing another person to ridicule or collective disapproval is just so easy. Adults do it all the time, although mostly to politicians and celebrities. But just as the internet brought about the ordinary person’s “15 minutes of fame”, it has made possible the ordinary person’s 15 minutes of shame when their body, their words (true or manufactured), their intelligence or their trusting gullibility are broadcast to a large audience in an instant. Anyone who been 14 must remember how it feels to want to disappear from shame. How much is this experience magnified by social media? Perhaps fewer teens self-destruct from isolation than did in the pre-internet days, but it is fairly certain that more self-destruct from shame.

A third concern on the dark side of social media is its anonymity. When we were teens, we experimented with alternate ways of being ourselves by going to summer camp and meeting kids who didn’t go to our school. Today’s teens have a much more powerful tool for this. They can ghost-write under any number of pseudonyms, and use these guises to argue, to make friends, to have adventures with superhuman abilities, and even to do a “virtual” form of dating, often carrying on semi-romantic relationships with no intention of meeting in person. All of this can be liberating—like a souped-up version of summer camp. Trouble arises when the “real life” relationships, which demand a certain level of authenticity, are replaced in the center with virtual ones, which thrive on inventiveness in deception.

Families and small communities have built-in limits to deception–one can’t, for instance, pretend to be 18 in school when one is really 14. Nor can one present parents and siblings with the photograph of a more attractive person and say, “here I am”. This forced honesty gives teens a sense of continuity—the knowledge that they are the same person today as they were yesterday, and will be again tomorrow. Years of continuity give rise to an inner sense of identity, so that even if sorely tested by circumstance, we can count on having a “Self” that is guided by the values of our past. Large communities, impersonal schools, and, most of all, the infinitely large and impersonal community of online space, tend to erode and to postpone the development of a clear, consistent and integral Self.

It takes a self to have self-worth, and it takes self-worth to survive those inevitable shaming experiences and to want to stay in the world. If the core of the self, under all of the masks, is empty, then we have nothing to offer for our right to exist but the superficial qualities of attractiveness and achievement. In a world that bombards us with images of “perfect” people who appear to magically know how to look both competent and beautiful, who can be beautiful enough? Who can achieve enough?

Wise parents learn that love for our children is not the same as pride in showing them off. We love them for their uniqueness; their irreplaceable selves. What we need in order to fight the dark sides of social media are more ways to reflect back to our kids images of their irreplaceable, authentic, quirky, selves in a loving, appreciative light. We need more ways, also, to show them the value of vulnerability and imperfection, so that they can truly value the round-about journey toward perfection more than the (false) promise of getting there.

Here are some ideas that might help:

• Compromise on social media. Keep the computers in the family room or kitchen. Think carefully about giving children the means to go online from a cell-phone sized instrument, as this level of portability sorely tempts them to be more clandestine and involved in their use of social media. Some families have a rule that friends on facebook must also “friend” the parents, at least up to a certain age (what age? That depends on the child. Maybe 13 or 14 on average, but with exceptions for those whose social intelligence is later or slower to develop.)
• Try to reinforce having a daily limit on recreational screen time, and model these limits as adults (yes, that is hard! But at least show where you stand).
• Use facebook to share things that inspire you with your kids.
• Minimal bottom line: No texting at the dinner table or during family functions. Use these times to share what has happened in your day, including both online and offline interesting experiences.
• Support teachers who use the internet in positive, responsible and empowering ways with tweens and teens. Support teachers, also, who maintain a schooling environment where virtual reality takes a distant second-place to multi-sensory, “real life” experience.
• Encourage creativity for its own sake. Resist the temptation to over-bask (yes, we made that word up) in a child’s achievements, but do bask in the glow when they overcome their reluctance to try or their discouragement when the development of talent comes slowly, and they keep trying. Show pleasure in the process more that the product.
• Model and teach empathy and kindness.
• Develop and encourage a sense of humor that does not rely upon put-downs of other people. Richer humor celebrates the imperfection in all of us and our shared vulnerability in life.