Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Generation MySpace

Point and click...

Upload, download...

Chat, search engine, e-mail...

This is all vocabulary that NONE of us possessed 20 years ago. I sometimes marvel at how quickly the internet has become such a big part of our lives, and especially our children's lives. They do not remember a time when this vocabulary wasn't a staple in their daily conversations. We are raising an entire generation of children who will never know the joys of looking up a book in the card catalog using the Dewey Decimal system. When they need a book at the library, they type it into the search box and a list of matching books and where they are located pops up on the screen. Voila! Instant gratification. If you can remember sifting through the cards at the library, and you now have a child between the ages of 2 and 21 who knows as much, if not more, than you about computers and the world wide web (and has never even heard of this Dewey Decimal dude), then you are a proud parent of Generation MySpace.

I happen to be one of those parents. I have an 8-year-old that can sit at the computer, turn it on, log in and do things ranging from playing cd-rom games to surfing the internet. He began going on the computer when he was 2 years old, and he has never looked back. Now, at this point in time, we have parental blocks on the computer, and he never strays away from or ToonTown, but there will come a day when he is lured into the appealing and popular world of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and a litany of others.

Last night as my husband and I were surfing the channels for something to watch, we came across a Frontline report called Growing up Online. The whole program was devoted to this sub-culture of teenagers that are completely addicted and wholly consumed with online interaction with their friends and/or strangers. It probed the actions of teenagers online on sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Now, I will admit that I myself have a MySpace and have been thinking about a Facebook, but my reasons for having these are dramatically different from those of teenagers today. Instead of just wanting to connect with friends and having a place to keep in touch, teenagers are in essence "living their lives online" on these sites. I am not naive, I knew the rising reliance in teenagers on the internet, but I admit that I was shocked at some of the comments I heard from the teenagers on this program. Not only are they chatting with their friends and sending photos, they are connecting with perfect strangers (including sending nude or half nude photos--my stomach is lurching) and being recommended pornographic or completely inappropriate sites to "check out." Don't even get me started about the YouTube craze of recording disturbing scenes on their cell phones and posting them online, as in the case of a fight that broke out in a high school that got caught on tape. Does this not strike anyone else as detrimental to the development of our children? Sure, I did my share of looking at things I wasn't supposed to look at and doing things I wasn't supposed to do during my teenage years, but this technological age has brought the capability of teenagers to do this to a whole new level.

Then there are the anorexic girls that are joining groups online that encourage each other not to eat and stare at pictures of skeletal women to "motivate" themselves to stick on their diet. Great, like there aren't enough messages being sent on television and in magazines to girls promoting low self-esteem, now we have rah-rah cheerleading sections on the internet devoted to it. We also have the cyber bullies, who make it their life's work to find young, meek, unpopular kids with low self-worth to torment and torture in cyber space. On this program, one boy (13 years old!) committed suicide because of the bullying he was the recipient of online. Disgraceful. Sickening. There are so many words that come to mind, I just can't wrap my brain around it. Lastly, we have the girl that everyone calls a "freak" at school who develops an online personality at 14 to live an alter life of adoration as a self proclaimed "model." Really what she was doing was posting pictures of herself in lingerie (or nothing at all) and reveling in the positive feedback she received from perverts and sex offenders. Fabulous. I am sure all her pseudo-friends and followers online are wonderful support in her life when she needs it. How can these kids learn how to interact with people when they barely do it?

These kids can't hold a serious conversation in person. They search for other nameless kids with typical qualities to have "online" relationships with, but never have the real life experience that they need to function in society. But, worst of all, they feel like it is their RIGHT to have privacy from their teachers and parents when it comes to their online identities. This has become such a way of life for them that they can't even picture their lives without it.

How do we, as parents, deal with this? Especially without alienating our children to the point that they won't even speak to us anymore. One zealous mother in the program who was head of the PTO was diligent in monitoring her kids' usage of the internet and even helped other parents figure out what their kids were doing online. She seemed like a great parent that really paid attention to her kids and tried to be open with them. Her son hated her. He was so resentful of her attempts at trying to monitor what he was doing for his safety that he completely cut her out of his life. Now, I know that it is a normal teenage affliction to "hate" your parents and want them to butt out of your stinkin' life, but come on. When did we, as parents, lose all respect and the ability to keep our kids out of trouble without them feeling like we are destroying their lives?

There is always the argument that if the child is brought up right, and the parents always have open lines of communication without being judgmental, ya-da, ya-da, ya-da, that the kids will stay out of trouble online naturally. I think that is a load of SHIT. Yes, absolutely, they are much LESS likely to get themselves into trouble in this situation; but I also think that there are just as many kids out there that were brought up in great situations that are doing stupid-ass stuff on the internet and setting themselves up for trouble. It is the society we live in today. It is the outlook that they can do anything they want online and nobody will know except the people they want to know. It is the ignorance and lack of life experience that EVERY teenager possesses that spurs them on to seek attention and excitement on the internet.

The internet has given our kids a playground to try on adult personas and behaviors, without necessarily having to be accountable for their actions. This is a scary situation. I know that I personally will do everything in my power to teach my kids internet safety, how to be responsible, what is right and wrong, and that I have eyes everywhere so they better be f-ing careful where they web surf, but I just don't know if that is going to be enough. Apart from not having a computer in the house, I am not sure what else to do. I guess we have to hold our breaths, unleash them into the wild and hope they make the right decisions. And I hope they do--because it's a jungle out there.