New technology has always brought panics. When the sewing machine was invented, there were articles arguing that if women kept moving their legs up and down it would affect their sexuality.
Young people have always sought out spaces where they could be together without their parents: in our day, it might have been the bus shelter or the shopping centre. On the whole, young people can’t go to the places where adults gather – bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants – and they have limited freedom (lots of homework and rules) but also a fair amount of free time, at least compared to busy parents. The internet is somewhere they can meet while they’re stuck at home.
This is worrying for many parents because it’s so public: we can see quite a lot of what they’re up to. Sometimes, we see their preoccupations and we think they’re trivial or silly. (Our parents would have said exactly the same about us, if they’d known the half of it). Adults have always worried about their children developing their own friendships and creating their own identities, hooking up with the ‘wrong’ friends or growing away from home in unwanted ways.
Young people are often more sophisticated about all this than we realise. Just as they understand that how they speak to their friends is not how they should speak to their grandparents, online they often have different identities for different audiences. (This is why, for example, some young people don’t want to be friends with their parents on Facebook – the kinds of conversation they have there aren’t meant to be overheard).
Teenagers often end up online with a hodgepodge of identities for different networks and apps. Sometimes parents can see only one part of this and it’s easy to misunderstand.
But parental concerns aren’t just because the internet allows us glimpses of what’s going on. There are some things about the internet that are profoundly different from the shopping centre or the bus shelter:
- Stuff stays around – online content lasts
- It’s very visible – there is potential for a huge audience for our teens’ mistakes
- It can go viral – there’s a chance that images or messages could spread rapidly
- It’s searchable – people can look up our young people and find them easily
Teens may well be managing all this very well. But they may also struggle with the difference between being in public – which they want - and being public – which they only want sometimes. Audiences are sometimes invisible (we don’t know exactly who we’re reaching) and technology moves fast: it can be hard to keep up with whether images or comments are being taken out of context or shared without permission.
Both parents and teens need to bear in mind that young people are struggling to make sense of who they are and where they fit in. Their online presence is a vital part of that. Teens may also have a different sense than their parents of where the boundaries lie – but both young people and parents need to know that being online is not wholly controllable, for the reasons above, and that they need to have the same levels of alertness and judgement that they would in any public place. They need to be streetwise.