Teens and Phones and Facebook

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.

  1. #1 by glenn on December 23, 2010 - 1:32 pm

    The “tools” are programming the people, not the other way around. Children as unformed as they are, are most vulnerable. Those who control the “tools” control the people. The data bases of who you are, know, and how you desire, act, think, are all being fleshed out.

    Check this man out, and then listen to or read some of his interviews. The first “cyborg”. The implications are enormous, and not very far off.


  2. #2 by People focus on things on December 26, 2010 - 6:47 pm

    I used to do consulting for medical practices. After a disagreeable meeting to discuss my findings, when a doctor flat lied about what he had said, I started recording all of my conversations about anything that might even possibly impact on a practice.

    I actually had two recorders that I carried on all visits. I made sure that everyone knew that I was recording all conversations and that anyone that wanted could have a copy.

    What really astounded me is the numbers of doctors who proposed harebrained schemes that were all illegal. Not some, all.

    How to double bill welfare for the same patient visit and not get caught. How to give kickbacks to government help agencies for referrals. How to form a subsidiary that would bill the primary organization for services at twice the rate with the same equipment and personnel. So it would be billed to Medicare at the inflated rate. How to defraud the government by sending patients to their personal condos for rehabilitation and charging the patient regular luxury hotel rates.

    These were intelligent people with recorders sitting in front of them and proposing federal felony conduct.

    Teenagers making unwarranted assumptions doesn’t even surprise me.

  3. #3 by Larry Bergan on December 27, 2010 - 5:08 am

    People focus on things:

    If true, that is very Interesting!

    Many years ago, I was in an elevator with some lawyers who didn’t know me and they were bragging about doing things that were “probably illegal” and hurtful to others, but profitable.

    I was disgusted, because the only illegal thing I had done – other then speeding – was to grow pot for my own use and that’s why I was in an elevator with these pricks.

  4. #4 by Larry Bergan on December 27, 2010 - 5:19 am

    For many young people these days, their cell phone is the only computer they can afford. If you haven’t noticed, computers are changing the world.

    As with ALL other major discoveries, computers can be used for good or evil. They tell me my desktop computer is not going to be affected by the recent sell-out to the phone and cable companies, I think it’s a HUGE travesty that these kids are going to be steered towards things that will be profitable for the corporations who spent millions or billions to take away their freedom to navigate to places they might want to go on these devices – as if they aren’t already.

    How did that law read again? Telecoms will be able to control content which doesn’t directly compete with them. What the hell does that mean?

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