For teens today, there’s no such thing as life before the Internet
“Señores y señoras, nosotros tenemos más influencia con sus hijos que tú tienes.”
("Ladies and Gentlemen, we have more influence over your children than you do.")
It’s the spoken introduction to “Stop!,” the exuberantly apocalyptic, alternative-rock anthem by Jane’s Addiction. It was released in 1990, just as the Internet was about to be launched from the dominion of computer-science geeks into the eager hands of college students, where it would remain for a few years before reaching out into the general public to connect just about everyone to just about anyone else.
If you remember back that far, back to the halcyon days when parents worried more about the corrupting influences of rock bands than Internet predators, you’re officially old enough to be out of touch, technologically speaking.
Even though you’re Internet savvy, even though you probably shop, bank and date online, you’re already a couple generations removed from the reality of what it’s like to have grown up in the Information Age.
“We are dealing with a fundamentally different child than we ever have,” says Joe Elcano, director of educational technology for Washoe County Schools. “They process things incredibly quickly. I’ve seen brain scans of kids who’ve grown up with the Internet, and their brains are actually different.”
If you’re a teenager today, there’s no such thing as life before the Internet. You don’t remember the pre-Google days when the way to start a search was by thumbing through index cards in a long wooden drawer at the library. You weren’t around when the only way kids found pornography was by sneaking into the bottom of Dad’s magazine rack. Now you just go to … well, if you haven’t already figured it out, I’m not going to tell you. If you’re a teen now, your world is as big as you want it to be.
But whether you were crawling around in a playpen in 1990, sitting in a dorm room reading Usenet posts or somewhere else entirely, the questions parents were raising about the power of rock lyrics around that time translate easily to questions parents are asking about the Internet: Who’s influencing the way young people think and what they’re learning, and who should be?
Should parents and educators be trying to shield impressionable teens from information overload—and misinformation overload? Or should they consider it a given that teens are going to access a lot of information—good, bad and inaccurate—and try to prepare them to process it all?
Add to that already complex question the fact that parents and teachers who are setting policies for teens are navigating through uncharted waters. They’ve never experienced the world from a perspective as well-connected as that of the kids they’re trying to guide through it.
"[The Internet is] such a different animal than anything we’ve had to deal with before,” says Chris Haskell, Reno High School band director and father of four pre-teenage children, says. “We’re not prepared as adults to understand the Internet world. It’s hard for us to give them guidelines. We’ve developed this expectation for them of ‘learning the magic’ without knowing what that means. We want them to be prepared, but be prepared for what?”
Not so private eyes
Rebecca Nicol, a 16-year-old from Sparks, is hanging out with a group of friends when she calls on her cell to talk about how she uses the Internet. Her friends giggle in the background as she explains that she spends about four hours a day—“Or maybe five. Or six.”—online. She has a MySpace page and two instant messenger accounts. Her time in front of the monitor is mostly devoted to hanging out in a virtual version of her everyday life. Most of her 193 IM contacts are fellow students from Reed High School. At school, she goes to ROTC and band practice. Online, she goes to the ROTC and school band MySpace groups.
“Their sole purpose of using the Internet is being with each other,” says Rebecca’s mother, Candace, of Rebecca and her friends.
“They’re on the cell phone, text messaging, chatting with the same group of people all the time. Mostly they’re blogging with their friends and talking about school stuff and, ‘What are you going to wear tomorrow? I’m going to put my hair up.’”
Search for teens on MySpace, and you’ll find topics more incendiary than hairstyles. Some teens brag about how much pot they smoke. Some post pictures of themselves drinking. Some blog their hearts out about how bored and lonely they will feel until they find some love at the next party.
But these topics don’t necessarily dominate teens’ cyber-hangouts.
Posts about bands and videogames appear to be more common.
Teens have been discussing all these topics for the past several generations. The difference now is these conversations take place in a forum that anyone can access.
Rebecca says she and her friends are careful about protecting their privacy online. They only allow people they know to access their profiles.
“If some strange person you don’t know asks, you can just deny them,” she says. “You can put your profile on ‘lock’ so people can’t see it.”
Not everyone is so careful about what they keep private and make public. Elcano recounts the story of a student teacher from another district whose middle-school students Googled her and found pictures from a sorority party, where she’d ended up wearing fewer items of clothing than would befit a schoolteacher.
“I’m sure she’ll never get a job teaching,” he says.
Couldn’t anyone have put an aspiring teacher’s name on a picture of anyone?
Well, yes. That, says Elcano, is a problem the school district sometimes faces. It’s called Internet bullying or cyberbullying, taking advantage of the anonymity the Internet affords in order to intimidate or libel someone.
“The bullying used to be on the playground,” says Elcano. A threatening note scrawled on paper or a harsh word would eventually disappear, he says.
“Cyber bullies create fictitious MySpace accounts for a student they’re mad at. They write inappropriate things. Cyber bullying is anonymous. Once it’s on the Internet, it never goes away. Once it’s on the Internet, anyone can copy it and forward it.”
If cyberbullying involves a threat, says Elcano, “we ask the school police or Reno or Sparks police to get involved.”
Internet predators are another safety issue, one that routinely makes headlines: “Congressman quits after messages to teens found” (CNN.com); “Rabbi Sentenced in Internet Sex Sting” (Washington Post); “Nevada Takes on Internet Predators” (Reno Gazette-Journal).
“I’ve only seen it on Law & Order,” says Candace Nicol.
“I’ve not personally had any experience with that at all,” Elcano says.
Still, the school district urges students to take precautions.
“You don’t want to give away things like your phone number or address,” says Elcano.
He advises students to think carefully about what kind of impression a log-in name can make. “If you use Sexy_soccer_player, you’re much more likely to attract an Internet predator than if it’s I_love_soccer,” he says. “And for God sakes, don’t ever meet anybody in person.”
“I wonder what’s going to happen with this generation who grew up with virtual space,” says Candace. She and her husband, John, have a trusting relationship with Rebecca and their other daughter, who is 18. Candace and Rebecca both report that they talk openly about all kinds of topics. Still, Candace is concerned that if teens’ communications with each other are mediated through technology instead of occurring face-to-face, they’ll end up missing out on some important social skills.
“I think people will have problems with intimacy,” she says. “Having a long-term relationship with somebody and working something out, the physical being is going to suffer. It’s going to be really scary. What’s scary is that people will find virtual realities more exciting.”
Rebecca, whose thoughtful cadence and lilting intonation echo her mother’s when she speaks, says, “It’s nice to talk [online] to people you don’t really know because they’re more understanding than people you do know.”
One of her favorite correspondents is a virtual friend from Morocco, whom she met on a music-sharing site. He’s among the few people she knows online who aren’t fellow Reed High students.
There are, of course, some distinctly positive effects of growing up post-Internet saturation, including the potential for teachers to better reach their students. Haskell teaches two music students online using a webcam. “It’s this incredibly fast, real-time tutoring, and we still have all the physical elements of good teaching, voice, inflection, all of those things that help with learning,” he says.
Brian Crosby, a teacher at Agnes Murphy Elementary School in Sparks, developed a way to allow a student with leukemia who can’t attend class to participate virtually, also using a webcam.
“I think teenagers are really lucky,” says Candace. “They have an advantage. They can really get to know what’s going on globally. My generation, we just had TV and radio. They can go find information instead of just being fed certain things.”
Elcano, who has two sons, ages 17 and 20, says, “I think kids today are far more globally connected and far more concerned about the global environment. My son who goes to college, when he wakes up in the morning, he goes on his computer, and he checks out USA Today and London Times because he wants a non-American perspective about what’s going on in the world.”
“The negative part is that they worry more,” says Candace. “I notice Becca and her friends; everything is so immediate to them. They’re worried about the world and bombs, and they’re worried about how we treat one another, things like racial issues.”
At the same time, she’s heartened by the fact that Rebecca often engages her in conversations about what she’s learning about politics.
“Your child needs to be able to talk to you,” says Elcano. “If your child feels uncomfortable [about something he or she saw online], building those lines of communication is important.”
Haskell trusts that his kids “will develop their own values, hopefully based on the values that we give them. Kids take whatever opportunity you give them. I really believe that upbringing and how you’re taught is important.”
Under the influence
But each of these parents/educators stresses that some guidance is in order when it comes to who should be influencing kids. None of them is taking any chances by erring on the lenient side.
“The kids are there in the room together with us, so I can see,” says Candace.
“You have younger and younger people being given more liberty and less personal accountability,” says Haskell. “As a teenager, I would say that would be good. As a parent, I would say that would be bad. It is making it more difficult for parents.
“I think what is happening is that kids are exposing themselves to a level of maturity that they cannot yet match,” he adds. “Some of the information they find online can be more than they can rationalize and put into scope.”
Elcano proposes that parents use firewalls to block sites that are inappropriate, and he advises parents whose kids spend the afternoon home alone to block Internet access altogether for those hours. And, he says emphatically, “Never allow Internet in the bedroom. And you can capitalize ‘never.’ Bold it. Make it red.”
In the schools, he takes a similar approach.
“We purchase a state-of-the art firewall that we update daily,” says Elcano. “We block out inappropriate sites based on categories.” Hate crime sites, gambling sites and any sites dealing with pornography or drugs are off limits. Teachers don’t always agree on the standards the district uses regarding what should be surfable and what shouldn’t.
“It’s always that constant give and take of what’s appropriate and what’s not,” says Elcano. “We have 6,300 teachers in the district. You could ask them all, and you’d get 6,300 different answers.”
But they consider the matter of guiding kids through the Information Age intact important enough to keep refining their approach.
Technological changes will keep coming faster than teens, parents or educators know how to deal with them. Elcano is concerned about the unmonitored access kids will have to the Internet once devices like the iPhone are able to surf easily and teens start bringing them to school.
He doesn’t know exactly how the school district will approach that situation. But in the meantime, he says, “The Internet is not going away. To ignore it is not to deal with it.”