When Are You Invading Their Space?

We all remember how important the concept of privacy is when you’re a teenager. From posting “Keep Out!” signs on your bedroom door to hiding your diary to pleading with your parents to leave you and your friends alone, part of growing up is individuating from your family. At the same time, I believe that teenagers need and want adult mentors and role models in their lives, whether it’s a parent, teacher, coach, youth minister, youth worker, or friend of the family.

I’ve blogged before about how online communities have become the new mall or hang out for teenagers. This means that in their minds, it’s a space just for them. Even though many teens now get that their public profiles can be viewed by anyone, there is still a protectiveness over “their space” and a strong desire to not share it with parents or other adults.

There’s a really interesting post over at the MacArthur Foundation blog Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning on how teens in Teen Second Life (a teens-only section of the virtual reality game Second Life) feel about adults setting up islands on their “grid.” To my knowledge there are only a couple islands and both are run by excellent non-profit organizations who are providing top notch educational content for teens. Also, the adults on these islands cannot enter the main teen grid, but teens can visit the islands. Some of the teens interviewed were fine with the islands and even welcoming of the adult interaction, but a couple were not. I found this quote really interesting:

“I view Global Kids as a despicable attack on TSL’s existence as a place for teen’s to take a break from real life and be able to have a world entirely grown by them. I also view GK as an attempt to impose their well-meaning, but still imposing beliefs on others, and to mold personalities. Also GK seems likely to be spawned by the same people who create ESRBs (the rating board that attacks games with little detailed descriptions), MPAAs (the movie rating organization prone to giving ratings for speaking up about issues) and probably RIAAs (the music industry association known for blocking free speech and creativity) too.”

Even the most well meaning adults can be viewed as “the man” when they are seen as setting up shop inside a youth space that is supposed to be completely by and for youth. Another teen reacted by saying, if teens weren’t allowed in the regular version of Second Life, than adults should not even be allowed on islands within the teen grid. Unlike There.com (another virtual reality environment) and most social networking sites, Second Life has opted to completely segregate teens from the main grid (which is full of adult content). Any time a space has truly been claimed by teens as their own (even if there are adults around, like on MySpace), it is going to be challenging for adults to try to interact without being seen as invading.

It made me think back to when I was interviewing teens on MySpace for the book. Instead of just posting in the Class of ’06 group or contacting any teens directly, I went through the group leader, asking if he would post my survey for me. I ended up getting close to 50 responses — I know if I had asked myself, it would have been far less, maybe even none.

Teens wanting their own space and being fiercely protective of it is normal. This is important to remember and balance with the responsibility of being a parent and your right to know what your teen is doing online. I actually think you can find out more by asking about (instead of demanding to know) what your teen does online — if your teen is getting in lots of trouble already, disregard my take and do what you feel you need to do. But I think you can get teens to show you different sites and features and open up without forcing them to show you their own profile right away (they may offer to share it with you naturally as you build a dialogue and trust with them around these issues).

The other takeaway from this is that most teens on sites where there are adults (like MySpace) actually want nothing to do with them. It’s all about socializing within their network, their world (mostly made up of teens they know offline or teens they met through a mutual offline connection). Most teens are smart about this and have applied the don’t talk to adult strangers rule to their digital lives. Unless someone is posing as a teen (and is really good at it), you can sleep easier knowing that their space on MySpace really is THEIR space.

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