After being tormented and harangued online by her peers, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Winter Haven, Fla., took her life, as reported in The New York Times on Sept. 14. This loss should give us pause about the deleterious effects of the unseen and unknown teen cyber world. Our hearts go out to her parents as we pray for them to find strength during their period of grief.
For educators and parents of teens, Rebecca’s loss provides an opportunity for us to consider the new norm generated by on-line communication. The Internet has provided instant information using multiple platforms that we never could have imagined even 10 years ago. The Internet has expanded our knowledge base and created a global communication network which can foster understanding and collaboration across continents.
However, these technologies carry with them great power that have the potential to create irrevocable damage, if used irresponsibly. Disruptive technology alters convention; the Internet is the ultimate disrupter. Besides the well-known and often discussed issues of cyber bullying, there are many other cyber pitfalls that we need to be aware of. On-line communication is easy, impersonal, and ubiquitous. It encourages filterless dialogue, impulsive responses, and thoughtless communication. It introduces and validates new and hurtful behaviors that would be deemed offensive or cruel in face-to-face communication. Anonymous and literally beyond shame, on-line communication can be crass, gauche, and even vulgar. Internet communication demands no gap between thought and action and discourages reflection.
Consequently, there is a new norm for teen communication. Civility is no longer required and limits can be tested with impunity. In some cases, the meaner, raunchier, and more provocative the teen can be, the more s/he can gain social currency. Additionally, whereas just a few years ago, teens were able to find solace in the privacy of their bedrooms, today there are no private spaces and no boundaries. Every thought can be shared and every impulse is recorded. Nonstop socializing can ratchet up the intensity of relationships, often times with unintended consequences.
Long before the introduction of on-line communication, teens maintained relationships with their friends outside of their parents’ knowledge and sometimes despite parents’ wishes. However, the stakes are much higher now. In the terabyte generation, a teen can maintain a completely distinct on-line persona, hidden behind passwords and firewalls — one that an adult can never see. This virtual personality may have no bearing on his or her daily engagements or experiences. Besides the obvious risk of unhealthy choices made under the guise of anonymity, I am more concerned about the fading importance of authenticity and integrity. Maintaining multiple identities, justified and encouraged in a teen’s world, removes the demand for honesty. Character is no longer valued.
During the high school years, teens learn to develop meaningful relationships based on shared experiences with their peers and mutual support.
No doubt, the Internet provides opportunities for social connectivity, but the distance and the impersonal nature of relationships will change the way teens understand intimacy and express empathy. In an interpersonal exchange, teens learn to emote by responding to social cues. In the cyber world, body language, eye contact, and supportive gestures are no longer required. The more teens rely on their Internet personalities, the more they may deprive themselves of communicating intimately and responsively.
A potentially catastrophic aspect of teen Internet use is that the Internet does not forget. Teenagers, who can be impulsive and may lack mature judgment, can post spiteful pictures and comments that can haunt forever. Pranking can lead to devastating emotional scars and sully reputations for decades. Even sincere expressions of love and caring can be twisted to create social vulnerability. Managing the Internet is challenging for adults; mature and responsible adults can sometimes fall prey to an easy but reckless post. Imagine how risky Internet use can be when dealing with volatile and temperamental adolescents.
As digital natives become more comfortable with the medium, the less concerned they become about its risks. Teenagers are tethered to their smartphones and smart devices. WiFi is everywhere and the Internet comfort zone neutralizes the reverence teens should have for it. It has become not only a medium, but a teen companion; sometimes, it replaces human companionship entirely.
As parents and educators, our role is to keep children safe by recognizing threats to their security. Adults should explicitly express the potential hazardous consequences associated with Internet use. We must engage teenagers about on-line relationships and discuss the benefits of personal interactions and meaningful connections. Conversations about relevant news events can underscore our concern for non-safe Internet use and can be a powerful antidote to Internet abuse.
Finally, adults should model behavior that is consistent with positive Internet use. Teens do not need directions from adults about how to master the on-line world of apps and games, but they do need adults to help them embrace this ever-changing, increasingly ubiquitous medium in healthy and productive ways.