Stumbling along on the Information Superhighway

As we all know, the web has many implications and takes many forms.  If we use the metaphor of a rock thrown into a pond, our behavior has ripples of effect online - in essence, circles.  Unfortunately, the ripples can move into places that we did not originally intend.

There are many thrilling ways that the internet has revolutionized our lives.  Each year, our capabilities and potential uses expand exponentially.  Teens today are a generation raised entirely with tech literacy, yet the reality of teen impulsivity has not changed. 

As we all know, teens  have brains that continue to grow, prune and mature well into their early 20s.  As much as we can sing all the praises of the online world, the areas I want to focus on highlight that, with respect to your digital life, it is imperative that you grow in wisdom much faster than would be normally expected.

The way we interact with each other, online behavior, texting, sexting and such, have dramatically changed in a few short years.  In many ways, we and society have not yet caught up to the changes, but teens today are immersed every day in these latest changes to our social fabric.  Because of this speed of change, rules that used to apply don’t apply anymore, old rules apply inappropriately and new rules have yet to be defined.  Internet use, while positive in many ways, and certainly fun, is definitely an issue loaded with temptation, confusion and potential land mines!

I am focusing on aspects of online use that can get out of control; such as overuse leading to isolation, addiction, inappropriate sharing, texting, sexting. 

These behaviors can lead to unanticipated consequences.  For example, what happens to those sexual or drunken photos or videos after a break up occurs? If there is a motivation for bragging or malicious mischief or out and out revenge or bullying?  What exactly are the consequences of this, when it seemed so crazy and fun at the time?  Parents are often concerned but unaware, except when the teen gets into a severe situation, and even then, some parents may not know their teen is in trouble.

Not infrequently, teens will share detailed information that could expose them to being found by a predator, or they inadvertently leave their families vulnerable to being robbed.  Even something as simple as “we are all going on vacation” put on Facebook, announces to the world that the home will be empty. 

Bullying can be far more insidious than overt problems of a circle of friends ganging up on another kid.  When online dynamics are involved, cyberbullying can include promoting false rumors, telling secrets that were shared in confidence, ridicule, exclusion, gossip and general mean spiritedness or out and out lies; lies that cannot be untold.  There have been a few famous cases of someone being depressed and other people assuming a fake identity and then urging that person to commit suicide.  This is devastating and tragic when it occurs.  This is not to say that Los Gatos has this degree of these problems, but the potential is there when technology is used unwisely or someone is in a vulnerable state of mind. 

Sexting is becoming a very common online activity these days.  Younger teens might be willing to sext, because it’s “safer” and they want a guy or a girl to like them.  While there is a distance which is less threatening than face to face flirtation, there is a distinct element of vulnerability and a potential for lack of control.  For example, you don’t know how a photo might be misused, whether to try to enhance and impress one’s friends that they can get someone to do it, or whether it’s forwarded by accident or with intent. 

Worse stories involve the older students who, in the context of relationships, feel this is a required behavior to turn each other on, or to prove that  they love each other.  However, what happens when things go sour?  What happens if jealousy or insecurity occurs or if someone wants revenge?  If we know one thing about teen life - it can change quickly and be unpredictable.  Your friend today might have something against you next week.  The shame and embarrassment of a forwarded photo or video are not a small consequence and can lead to profound alterations in a teen’s future at the school or beyond. 

View this short clip on the sexting trend.  The message here seems to be that at a deeper level, teens want their parents to help them avoid this potential humiliation.

More serious and long term issues pertain to criminal and societal ramifications of our online behavior.  To most teens, these ramifications seem so remote, yet at this point in time, society is tracking us and creating a permanent record that constitutes an online profile that, at some point, can come back to work against us. 

Just as Facebook and other social networking sites are regularly checked by potential employers (who might find information despite our best efforts at privacy), at the higher levels of online tracking, governmental and private organizations compile everything from our phone calls, to physical locations beamed from our cell phones, from what we bought at the store to images of us via surveillance cameras that are installed in public places.  Did you know, for example, that in London, for example, there are over 4,000 cameras installed around the city?  It’s easy to forget this when you’re just having fun with your friends.  But one day, when you are older, you may be applying for top secret clearance for a job, or you may have gotten into trouble, or you may have a name that puts you under further scrutiny when you travel internationally.  We all have to remember that these electronic records never disappear.

A politician recently decided to find out what kind of tracking his cell phone carrier performed on him.  In the United States, the FBI and Drug Enforcement agencies utilize this information when they decide they have a reason to pursue it, but it is being collected passively. He was stunned to find that the cell carrier tracked him 35,000 times in a six month period!  The article below outlines his case.

Also, how could you know when you were sexting some semi-nude or nude photos, or sexual video clips to your girlfriend or boyfriend, that there are currently laws that, if compromising enough, these photos could be considered evidence in convicting you of transmitting child pornography which makes you eligible for lifetime sex offender status?   These kinds of decisions are made on a case by case basis.  Although states are currently evaluating these laws in the context of teenage impulsivity, but as of now, though, they remain in force.  Remember, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend yourself in court against a sexual charge.

The point is that our activities online often have ramifications beyond what we first intended.  Sometimes we are not even aware of all the ways that this information can be used, or misused. 

What can be done about this as teens and their families move quickly, and excitedly, deeper into the digital world?  How can we help teens develop the wisdom they need to responsibly manage their digital experience so it is not harmful to them.  As with driving, how can we help them be responsible web users?

As with driving, teens need help thinking through the ramifications of their actions.  Because this can be difficult for any of us to do when we are excited about a new electronic gadget, thinking ahead is important. 

Open discussions of the ramifications of a teen’s actions is important.  All of us need to integrate discussions of responsible internet use into our dinnertime conversations.  Bringing in news stories, like those above, as discussion starters is a good place to start these conversations. 

Sometimes actually limiting online exposure is a good way to impact this issue. 

While most of us would not be very cooperative with “restrictions” on our online activities, helping a teen build activities outside the internet is important.  Adding activities to a teen’s life that are interesting and stimulating in the “real world” is likely to be a good antidote to too much internet involvement.

All of us, parents and teens, need to remember that teens are developing their own judgment about their behavior and the consequences of this behavior.  In order to do this, though, they need correct and useful information to make informed decisions.  Adults can provide that information as well as an experienced ear, and heart, for the teen to figure out what they are doing.  Opening a constructive dialog with a teen about these important issues is more and more important as the digital age moves forward.  We all know that the internet is not going away.  The information superhighway is growing every day.  Our task is to develop into good, safe and responsible drivers on that metaphorical highway.  Be careful out there!




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