Growing Up in the Internet Age:
Teenage Intimacy and Isolation
If your kids are awake, they’re probably online, ran the headline in the January 20 New York Times. A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation was reporting that daily media use among children and teenagers is up dramatically from five years ago.
The study found that kids ages 8-18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with computers, television and other electronic devices, up from a little over six hours in 2004. And that doesn’t even include time spent texting or talking on cellphones. What’s more, because they spend so much of that time multi-tasking, kids are actually packing almost 11 hours worth of media content into those seven and a half hours.
It’s tempting to react to these statistics with alarm. But Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of Kent Place Middle School and the Ethics Institute, offered a more useful and pragmatic view of this generation of “digital natives” to an audience of parents, grandparents and others at Interweave on Sunday, February 7. “Technology is here to stay,” said Rezach. “The challenge is how we educate them to use it in a way that is appropriate and in their best interest.”
Rezach shared the podium with a panel of four Kent Place students, 7th to 9th graders. Kids today, she said, part of Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2009) “don’t know life without technology. The advent of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook accounts for a large part of the increase in media use among teens. Three-quarters of all 7th-12th graders in the Kaiser Foundation study reported that they have a profile on a social networking site. But with well-publicized incidents of sexual exploitation, bullying and even deaths associated with these sites, some parents are understandably wary.
Rezach demonstrated the ease with which anonymous identities can be created online, by showing the audience a fake Facebook account she and her students had created in a matter of minutes, using a fictitious e-mail address. Cyberbullies and sexual predators can effectively hide behind this anonymity.
One appalling cyberbullying incident in 2006 involved a 13-year old girl who committed suicide after being humiliated on MySpace by a grown woman posing as a 16 year-old boy. The woman was convicted on three misdemeanor charges, but last year a federal judge overturned the verdict.
The National Crime Prevention Council reports that cyberbullying affects almost half of all teens. The effect can be depression and a sense of extreme isolation. Rezach noted that, “in the old days, arguments and interactions used to be contained to three or four people. Part of being in the Internet age is that these kids can now reach millions online. Putting that much power into the hands of pre-adolescents is daunting.”
However, forbidding middle school-age kids from using sites like Facebook is not the answer, according to Rezach. In fact, Facebook has now eliminated its minimum age requirement. In her view, equipping students with the necessary tools to keep themselves safe is a more realistic approach.
The young women on the panel were all well-versed in the use of privacy control settings and the dangers of posting photos and personal information online. “We’re not doing them any favors by protecting them or restricting them,” Rezach asserted.
The Middle School Head is troubled by a trend she’s noticed among her technology-immersed students: with online communication almost exclusively non-verbal, she sees kids quickly losing the art of real conversation—of knowing how to speak and actively listen. “Students in the classroom really don’t communicate verbally. One talks over the other; they don’t know how to stop, don’t know how to argue with each other. They are so used to communicating in isolation; the human interaction is almost gone. Even the stellar students don’t talk.”
“It’s a whole different brain that we’re working with,” she said. Rezach and her colleagues have tried to counter this trend by encouraging small group interaction in the classroom. It’s a struggle, because so much of 21st century learning is happening online.
The girls on the panel freely admitted that they are addicted to sites like Facebook. Whether it’s checking their wall for messages and photos, joining online pillow fights or other interest groups, they struggle with balancing social media and schoolwork. The oldest girl there, a freshman in high school, was closer to achieving that balance, with encouraging pragmatism. “It is addictive, but now that I’m in high school I really don’t have time to spend on it. You have to manage your time.”
Technology continues to change rapidly, and parents’ understanding of it will likely continue to lag behind their childrens’. Rezach stressed the importance of keeping the lines of communication open. “Engage your child in conversation. Don’t just say ‘no’. Help them understand your values and the ethical dilemmas.”
An 8th grader on the panel offered one reassuringly low-tech antidote to the media saturation of 21st century life. “Every single night we have a family dinner,” she said. Even if I’m moody, the talking and laughing...it really helps.” ?