I had a really interesting conversation with a journalist this morning about whether technology has changed this generation of kids and teens who have grown up “totally wired.” It’s hard to imagine technology creating an impulse that wasn’t there to begin with. Most of the researchers I’ve read on this topic talk about what teens are doing online as mirroring what they’ve always done offline. This is pretty much what I argue in the book as well. Whether it’s bullying, journaling, breaking up, making up, having crushes or expressing themselves by posting self portraits.
Would I have been comfortable posting my written diary online if I had access to the internet when I was younger? Would I have posted the photos my best friend and I took of each other “modeling” different outfits? Probably, knowing that I would get instant feedback and validation.
Obviously there are characteristics of the technology and digital communication that are different – the public nature of the internet, the ability for anything you post to go viral and reach way more people than you ever intended, the permanence of what you post, the possibility to be someone else online, to find other kids who may be engaged in self harm or who have eating disorders and support or encourage each other online as well as find “thinspiration” from countless images of Mary Kate Olsen, to create different accounts or profiles with different personalities, to create an avatar that’s nothing like you, etc.
Maybe the initial impulses haven’t changed, but is the way these impulses are able to be expressed virtually changing us? And if so, how? Are teenagers losing face-to-face social skills? Are kids who might have never “bullied” before in person now fighting back or attacking others online anonymously? Are girls with eating disorders relapsing because of pro ana sites when they wouldn’t have relapsed without them? I don’t think we fully have the answers to these questions yet. I don’t think teens’ motivations, needs or desires have changed, but technology can provide a cloak of anonymity and sense of distance that gives us all the opportunity to express ourselves in ways we would never think of doing offline.
I’m just excited to be part of this discussion and to continue to check in on the amazing work of researchers who are exploring these issues right now.
P.S. CNET just launched an excellent online safety guide for parents. Check it out!