I’m the first one to admit I love my Crackberry, I love my laptop, my Kindle – I’m sure I’ll be in love with my iPad once I’ve had it more than 24 hours. I’m not a gadgethead but I’m surrounded by them and I love the convenience of my gadgets, I love how much easier they make my life. But they are nothing more than tools.
Dealing with teens – especially the younger ones – their cells are more than tools, more than phones. Take them out of their hands and they go crazy, they feel more than lost. Without their phones in their hands, they act as if they are being cut off from something incredibly essential to their lives. It’s not a tool – it’s a lifeline. Some of that, I suspect, is the fact that texting is to all appearance a private, teenage communication – it allows kids to have a private world into which adults are not granted entree. It is also to all appearances a place of radical equality – everyone is equal in texting world.
It is those twin appearances that get kids into trouble.
The world of texting “feels” private – it’s nonverbal so you can’t be overheard by adults, but it’s also on the screen in front of you. If you think about almost any scandal or mini-scandal involving sexting by teens, it’s not uncommon for the kids to be shocked that their pictures went beyond the person for whom it was intended. It’s not that they don’t know messages and pictures can be forwarded (they do it all the time) it’s rather the deceptive sense of privacy they have about texting. “I only send to my friends.” There’s an unspoken (and incorrect) assumption that texts and pictures are going to be kept from anyone who the sender or subject doesn’t want to see them. Kids assume their texts and images will go no further than their “private” circle of friends. That’s of course not true. For a teen, the violation of having their sexy pic texted to the entire school is a betrayal of personal trust, a betrayal of their sense of privacy.
You see the same dynamic on Facebook where kids carry on intense discussions and interactions assuming that access is limited only to those parties the kids would welcome. The idea that facebook pages might be accessed by people other than that rarely if ever occurs to adolescents. Again, this becomes an avenue in which privacy is assumed but not real – even the language of Facebook misleads people. “My Facebook page” sounds like a private space when it is in fact a very public space.
The appearance and apparent privacy of these modes of communication, not simple adolescent lack of experience with the world, seems to me one of the roots of many of the challenges and problems parents of teens find themselves dealing with.
I also mentioned the deceptive appearance of equality on line. For many adolescents, adults are an omnipresent other. They see us not as peers or potential peers. Most teens seem to understand intellectually that adults read Facebook or text, emotionally they don’t get it. When someone friends them on facebook, they assume that person is a similar aged peer. When they send a text, the idea that it might end up on a phone belonging to an adult rarely crosses their minds. You hear accounts of kids sexting and being genuinely shocked when their images draw the attention of adults. The pictures were intended for a boy/girlfriend who is the same age and peer group and therefore an equal. The same goes for photos posted online. They assume adults aren’t interested in what they’re posting and saying and so assume if someone is interested, he/she is a fellow adolescent.
The challenge comes in a second level reality. For teens, their phones and their Facebook or other social network tools are more than mere tools – they are the means by which kids exercise independence and freedom from adults. This connects with the concept of privacy – kids need and want to communicate with their peers. As adolescents, their peers are central to their experience of the world. Kids have always sought ways to be independent of their parents and caregivers. Cell phones and texting are an avenue by which kids can communicate with one another ostensibly away from prying adult eyes. It is one venue in which teenage crises, dramas and traumas can play out and be witnessed by an audience of peers who care and connect. It is, to borrow a metaphor, a private stage on which teens’ emotional lives are dramatized for their peers, and a forum in which they can measure their experiences against their peers’ and weigh their own normalcy and importance. From an adult perspective, most of these dramas are trivial – and like teenage drama forever, most of it is externally very trivial. But the emotional intensity and reality is very real for the teens involved.
The private world of texting also provides kids a means by which to share their very real problems with one another and give and receive emotional support. There’s a problem of course – many of these problems need to be brought to the attention of responsible adults and aren’t; while this isn’t new, it should remind us that the teenage world of love and romance, drama and despair is insular. It’s a world into which teens are reluctant to grant entrance to adults – even when they need adult help because the price appears to be a loss of teenage privacy. Adult involvement means adult discovery of teens’ emotional world and a possible end to hard-won teenage independence. Asking for help from adults is a huge risk for kids.
A while back, a Gen-X author Katie Roiphe wrote a piece for Slate in which she offered this insight:
Can we, for a moment, flash back to the benign neglect of the 1970s and ’80s? I can remember my parents having parties, wild children running around until dark, catching fireflies. If these children helped themselves to three slices of cake, or ingested the second-hand smoke from cigarettes, or carried cocktails to adults who were ever so slightly slurring their words, they were not noticed; they were loved, just not monitored. And, as I remember it, those warm summer nights of not being focused on were liberating. In the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves.
Kids need the margins, they need those private spaces to make mistakes, to learn to support one another, to be themselves. They need the privacy and the experience of equality that comes from being peers. They need both to find those spaces where they are bullied and here they respond to the bullying. But they also need adults and they need some adult presence and guidance. I don’t know the balance but I’m starting to see the challenges.