I tuned into the PBS documentary “Growing Up Online” last night on Frontline for two reasons. As a member of Generation X, I’m just on the outskirts of this technologically suave generation and am striving to keep up with them. And as a mother of toddlers, I will be faced with raising children smack in the middle of this generation.
When the Internet came out and everyone wanted to regulate it, I remember thinking why? It’s a form a free speech. Let people say what they want and if I don’t want to hear it, I won’t visit their site.
But now the thought of my twins venturing online has me freaking out. How can I ensure their safety? How can I control/monitor what they see and do? How can I prevent them from making stupid mistakes that become a permanent part of the World Wide Web for all to see and mock?
But I think the show described it best when it talked about the Internet as a social network for kids. When I was a kid, we hung out at the mall or the rec center. My parents hung out at the malt shop (I’m guessing). For this generation, the hang out is electronic.
According to the documentary, kids go online to express them, to complain about parents and to communicate with each other. All the things I did at my favorite hang out.
And just like my parents had concerned about me at the mall, I’ll have concerns about my children on the Internet. But instead of blowing these fears out of proportion, parents need to adjust with the times to appropriately address the issues.
And to do so, parents need to understand the terminology and the reason for their child’s interest in the Internet.
The documentary showed some teenage girls defining “friends.” They would have contests to see who had the most friends, numbering in the thousands, on MySpace. But according to these girls, they understood that they only “really knew” about 200 of these so-called friends and only about 50 of them were “best friends.”
I don’t know about you, but growing up I had one, maybe two, best friends. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever really known 200 people.
In addition, according to the show, these kids are more comfortable being more public with their lives. Since we live in a world where anyone’s private live could end up on the nightly news and the escapades of the latest pop princess is headline material, it’s no surprise to me that today’s kids aren’t shying away from the spotlight.
The times have changed since I was a kid and the Internet is new territory for us all.
The documentary called the Internet “the new wild West,” adding that no one is really in charge.
Therefore we as parents, family members, friends and teachers of today’s youth need to help guide them through this new terrain.
I think that stay-at-home-mom Evan Skinner expressed my fears the best when she said that she wasn’t afraid that the Internet would make her kids bad, but that her good kids would make a bad decision on the Internet and would have to pay for it permanently.
Kids don’t realize the impact of their decisions, the consequences of their actions and the overall permanence of the Internet.
If as a teen I had decided to flash a group of friends, once the act was over it was done. There was no digital photography, no camera phones and no YouTube. I could do something stupid and the knowledge of my act was limited to who was ever in proximity of me and lasted only until somebody else did the next stupid stunt.
Today, if a teenage girl flashes a group of friends, photos and YouTube videos are on the net before she can pull her shirt down. And while it might seem like fun and games when she’s 16, how will she feel when that photo or video is still being viewed when she’s trying to run for Congress 10 years later? Will she still be happy when her future husband stumbles across her hijinks on the Internet? Or her own children?
Once it’s on the Internet there is no turning back.
Aside from this big lesson, the other issues facing teens and their parents on the Internet are the same issues that have faced them in the past, but just with a twist.
The Internet offers another way for students to take the easy road when doing homework. While Spark Notes might be the latest craze among those behind in their literature class, the concept is not new. We had Cliff Notes when I was in school.
But schools are adapting and adjusting to the newest way to cheat. According to the documentary, some teachers are requiring writing assignments be done in class to ensure its original work. Others accept assignments through turnitin.com, a site that scans for plagiarism
The documentary gave several examples of teens who escaped the feeling of not fitting in by recreating themselves with online alter egos.
One father who had made his daughter delete her online site later let her put it back up after he discovered that she created that online identity because it’s where she felt comfortable. I’m not sure I agreed with his decision entirely, but I do support the idea that we need to talk to our kids to find out why they are doing it.
The Internet also lets some teens bond with others in support of an addiction. The example given was a girl battling anorexia. Rather than finding help she dove deeper into the obsession getting encouragement and tips from other pro-anas.
My mother recently told me about a teen who was gambling big money on ball games through the Internet.
The last story of the documentary was the sad story of Ryan Halligan. Ryan was not only a victim of school yard bullying, but of cyber bullying. Other kids would start online rumors about his sexuality. Some mocked and threatened him online. One girl flirted with him and then told him it was all a big joke.
I can’t even imagine how psychologically defeating that had to be, especially for tween caught in that awkward age of adolescence.
But the bullying isn’t the sadist part of the story. Without his parents’ knowledge, Ryan began an online friendship with another boy where they talked about suicide. He visited “how to” sites and one site that let you plug in your personality traits and it told you the best way to kill yourself.
This story was the scariest of all. But his parents openly admitted and obviously regretted that they didn’t know, or try to know, what he was doing online.
I think that’s the best thing a parent can do – get involved in a child’s Internet experience and teach them how to use it responsibly. Skinner suggested putting the computer out in the open so that you could monitor their use.
According to the survey done for this show, one is seven kids reported being sexually solicited online. But most of these were discounted as teenage boys saying “hey baby” as opposed to a real predator.
The show also said that most kids that got email messages from people they didn’t know just deleted them.
It reported that most online meetings were when the kids went looking for them, adding that if a child is engaging in risky behavior online, they are probably engaging in even riskier behavior offline.
Kids don’t see the internet as something separate they go to. Instead it’s just a continuation of their life, according to the documentary.
The show called the Internet “the greatest generation gap since the advent of rock ‘n roll.”
And as parents, teachers, friends and families it is our responsibility to bridge that gap.
What ways do you suggest doing so?
You can watch “Growing up Online” at PBS.com.