Instead of writing the usual January new-year new-beginnings type post, I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind lately. And that is the internet.
Being only 22 years old, I understand the importance of the internet in the life of a teenager. For some older adults, the importance and significance is hard to grasp. Being born in 1990 meant that I do not consciously remember a time in my life when I did NOT have a computer. My Dad helped found a computer company back in the early 90’s, and hanging out at his office after daycare was where I learned how to use the Paint program, save documents, re-open them, and invert colors. At the age of 6 I vividly remember teaching my grandfather how to save documents on the computer. When I was in first grade, the primary way I talked to my best friend was via instant messaging. By 5th grade, the computer was the primary source for human interaction, and I never knew a different way.
That was back in 2000. Thirteen years later and kids are growing up relying even more on the computer than my generation. My 4-year-old niece knows how to use my iPhone quite efficiently. And you know what? This isn’t a bad thing!
I was not devoid of human interaction. I had it; lots of it, more than my parents or grandparents ever dreamed of having. The difference was that talking face-to-face and talking face-to-computer screen is, well, different. The internet is a vast web of human knowledge, beauty, inspiration, and hope. Its where you can learn anything you need to know if you search in the right places. Its a place where you can see human beings at their full potential, doing great things, making big changes. I mean, you’re at OUR website, aren’t you?
But the internet can also be a cruel and dark place. Masses hide behind the cover of anonymity, saying things and doing things that they would never do in real life. You can learn how to build bombs, hack bank accounts, and terrorize those around you. You can lie, cheat, and steal and its all in good fun. You can play games with vomit-inducing content. The internet, in all of its splendor and glory, is equally as disgusting and awful.
So what can you do, parent? Can you really just tell your teen to “just get off the computer”? If someone is harassing or bullying your teen, is it practical to say “Just don’t read their Facebook” or “Just don’t use FormSpring”? As I mentioned earlier, the internet was and is an integral part of my life, and is even more so for your teens today. By saying “Just don’t use these social media sites” is similar to saying “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Sort of useless.
Taking the internet away is not going to solve the problem or protect your teen. Most teens need the internet to complete their homework (and I’m not just talking about studying – some classes literally have homework assignments that must be completed on the computer). But beyond school work, the internet (and texting for that matter) is the primary source of social interaction for most kids. If you want your teen to be social and to find the right people to encourage him/her and build him/her up, then you want the internet on your side!
The trick is to talk to your kids about the magnificent side of the internet as well as the dark side. Sites that encourage anonymity will breed hateful comments (or “trolling” – saying horrible things just to get a reaction). If you don’t believe me, take a look at the comments on YouTube. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a good comment on YouTube. Or, similarly, just search the news for anything involving FormSpring. FormSpring, in my opinion, is the best available site for cyber bullying.
Sites that encourage community, however, are more prone to the good side of the internet. Micro-blogging sites like Tumblr, forum-based sites (my childhood favorites were Neopets and GaiaOnline), or club-type websites are all based on community interaction and being a “member” as opposed to an anonymous account. These types of websites, while there will always be trolls and hateful speech, are usually overpowered by kind souls that accept you for who you are. A great example is Tumblr; nearly every Tumblr user agrees with the words of Timon from the Lion King. “Oh, you are an outcast. That’s Great! So are we!” These community based websites can be just the support that a teen needs to get through a rough time. Many people have found great strength and freedom via friends they’ve never actually “met”.
By teaching your teen that the internet can breed the worst in people, and preparing them to understand that anonymous comments are not comments that should ever be taken seriously, you can build a hedge to protect their still-developing sense of self. Keep an eye on the types of websites your teen is on (while still practicing a healthy dose of privacy) and if you’re concerned about a certain website, talk about it. Learn what can be done about cyberbullying on certain websites such as Facebook or Twitter. I know Facebook has an area for reporting suicidal content; did you?
Prepare your teen for the best and the worst of the internet, and when they encounter the worst, they will be prepared to let those trolling comments go in one ear and out the other without any damage. And if they can protect themselves from the worst of the internet, then all that’s left is this vast, glorious, ever-inspiring, ever-understanding mass of friends, ready to lend a hopeful comment or sincere PM (Private Message). If your teen, like me, can “live” in the good side of the internet, then he/she is going to turn out just fine in the “real world”.