Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Digital Lives of Teens: The Internet Never Takes a Rest

April 15, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

In the introduction to her new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, author Emily Bazelon shares the story of when her friends "fired" her in middle school. She was devastated and went home from school disconsolate and in despair. But, she explains, at least she could go home to find solace and separation from the incident at school. It was a different time and place. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat or texting could not trail her home and make the pain inescapable.

That is not the case for kids today, who are unable to gain respite from social pain that occurs at school due to the ubiquitous and relentless nature of social media. The unkind comment at lunch can find its way onto Instagram in a heartbeat so that the idea of "going home" after school loses its meaning and makes the sometimes wrenching space of school permanent. The Internet never takes a rest.

Students at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey found themselves embroiled in an online scandal involving the posting of nude photos on Snapchat, which holds the false allure of being an app that lets photos appear and then disappear in a matter of seconds -- except when the recipient of the photo is able to take a screenshot and then redistribute the photo in multiple social media spaces in a matter of nanoseconds. Because the screenshot of the nude female student at Ridgewood High School appeared on Instagram, the police got involved, and students were told they had to delete the photo immediately or be charged with possession of child pornography, since the photo involved an underage person.

Sadly, this is is not an exclusive incident. Students are faced with these kinds of choices every day -- to post or not to post, to forward or not to forward, to delete or not delete, to share or not to share, to friend or not to friend, etc.

Digiphrenia: The 21st Century Identity Crisis

Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, discusses the concept of "digiphrenia." In an NPR interview, Rushkoff defines digiphrenia as "the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. There's your Twitter profile, there's your Facebook profile, there's your email inbox. And all of these sort of multiple instances of you are operating simultaneously and in parallel. And that's not a really comfortable position for most human beings."

For teenagers, this can be overwhelming. The teen years are when young people try on different identities. With social media, teens have the opportunity (and challenge) to play with the digital self -- which can be harder and harder to distinguish from the physical self as collisions take place between virtual and real, and as the lines between the digital and physical grow blurred and indistinguishable.

For teens, this experience of "trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time" clouds the ability to make sound judgments. It effectively places them in the unenviable and daunting spot of having to play the equivalent of 50 games of "telephone," that group activity you may remember from childhood in which participants whisper a message to another participant at the same time. With multiple messages coming in at breakneck speed and with little time to process before passing the message onto the next recipient, the "game" gets twisted and distorted so that the "final" message is a far cry from the intended meaning initiated at the start of the game. And the end result can often be public, permanent and painful.

Opportunities and Responsibilities

What can parents do?

  • Be present and available to work through thorny situations, and be open to partnering with the school on behalf of students.
  • Recognize how difficult the online landscape is for teens, and validate their worries and concerns.
  • Become familiar with teen "hotspots." For example, Instagram and Snapchat have surpassed Facebook in popularity for teens.
  • Talk about case studies from the news, like the Ridgewood story mentioned above. Ask your teen if this could ever happen in his or her school, and role play how to handle it if something similar did happen.
  • Avoid over monitoring, which can shut down the lines of communication with your teen. Find the delicate balance between being present and available and micromanaging and invading privacy.

What strategies do you have for helping teens sort through digital opportunities and challenges?

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Family Engagement
  • Media Literacy
  • Mental Health
  • Parent Partnership
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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