When I speak to parents I always try to demystify the technology teens are using (which some parents feel like they don’t understand) by emphasizing that teens’ virtual lives are simply reflections of their “real lives.” One difference is how the internet’s ability to amplify whatever it is by going viral or being able to go beyond your immediate circles and reach many more people. Another difference is that teens can be bolder online, saying more than they would “in real life,” posting to invisible audiences and even creating multiple new identities for themselves.
One interesting example of this is the phenomenon of gangs going online to recruit members, brag and tag their profiles with gang symbols similar to how they would use graffiti to tag in the real world. From an article in the Nashua Telegraph:
More and more frequently, gangs are using MySpace and other social networking sites the way they used to use graffiti, and gathering in the streets, Savelli said — to proclaim their unity, brag of exploits, recruit members and disrespect rivals.”Social networking sites are today’s street corners,” Savelli said, but with worldwide visibility. “If you stand on a street corner and you disrespect some guy, you’re going to get punched in the face. If you do it on the Internet, you can get away with it,” at least for a while, he said.
The article warns that teens should not pretend to be affiliated with gangs and post these tags online to be cool. Gang members may show up at school and explain (physically) that it’s not. The good news is that gang members going public with their exploits is helping police investigate the crimes (as well as have a window into their thinking). With so many young people reflecting their offline lives on public sites, we are now able to see destructive behavior that used to be hidden…and hopefully do something about it.