In today’s clickbait culture, the news about online teenagers is dire, even apocalyptic.
We are told that selfie culture is destroying the self-esteem of adolescent girls. Heavy social media use, we learn, is linked to disruptions in sleep patterns in kids. Young people, apparently, are addicted to their smartphones. Teenagers are even using messaging apps to kill each other.
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Yes, the internet, like everything else, is both good and bad. But judging from the online headlines, you’d think that the internet is a beast insatiably looking for teenagers to devour. And you’d think that digital natives — those supposedly tech-addicted, violent, shallow, reckless, selfie-obsessed kids — are complicit in their own digital demise.
Of course, such end-of-the-world pessimism drives page views and fuels a satisfying sense of adult superiority. But is it based in reality? Are teens and young adults simultaneously the worst offenders and most vulnerable victims in our new digital society?
Are digital kids doomed? Have they sold their souls to the lure of the Internet?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think that teens are actually doing a much better job navigating life on the Internet than we give them credit for.
The kids are alright
We know that children and teens spend a staggering amount of time using technology. A 2015 Common Sense Media poll reported that 13- to 18-year-old spend approximately nine hours a day in front of a screen; while for kids ages 8 to 12, it’s nearly six hours. A 2015 Pew Research Center study determined that 92 percent of teens go online daily and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.”
During these hours spent online, children and teens are doing everything from playing video games to connecting with each other on social media. But let’s look at a few indicators which suggest that kids are much smarter about their tech behavior than we often assume.
One professor of digital media noticed that her students are eschewing public forms of social media like Facebook and Twitter for more private, or narrowcast, forms like Snapchat or Messenger. “Having grown up with these platforms, college students are well aware that nothing posted on Facebook is ever truly forgotten, and they are increasingly wary of the implications,” Felicity Duncan of Cabrini College writes.
“Teens engage in complex management of their self-presentation in online spaces; for many college students, platforms like Snapchat, that promise ephemerality, are a welcome break from the need to police their online image.”
Research suggests that the rising generation is laudably committed to philanthropy and volunteerism. While many teens are using social media to champion tolerance, equality and unity. Indeed, what makes today’s young people especially effective at driving change is a digitally connected world that allows them to make ideas and causes go viral.
Folk devils and moral panics
A common parental fear is that their child is going to meet a dangerous stranger on the Internet, a concern fueled by fact that these kinds of stories inevitably trigger intense media scrutiny. But the truth is that most of the people who teens talk to online are people that they know offline, and teens report that connecting with them on social media actually strengthens the offline relationship.
One way to ensure that kids can have a more positive online experience is from adult guidance and protection. A recent Pew Research Center study states that while more than 90 percent of parents have talked to their children about what is appropriate to share online, only about 60 percent actually check their children’s social media profiles.
Initiatives like the annual Safer Internet Day recognize the need to make the digital world a kinder place for young people – and yet when it comes to the protection of our children, we can always do more.
Every generation assumes that the young are doomed. “The morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly,” an English nobleman thus said to Parliament in 1843. But when we look at the digital behavior of the younger generation, we need to remember two things.
First, the journey to adulthood will always be paved with errors. This is how we learn and grow. That’s how we become human.
Second, these young people have both the luck and misfortune of being the first digital generation, the first set of humans who can’t imagine a world without the internet. Like any group of pioneers, they are learning the lay of the land, blazing new trails and making things up as they go along.
Instead of condemning them for their mistakes, perhaps we should do what we can to help them along the way.
Instead of calling them stupid, perhaps we should call them brave.