There is a ride at Epcot Center, Walt Disney World called “Spaceship Earth,” all about communication. It starts off showing cave drawings and smoke signals, goes forward in time to show the invention of the printing press, then the telegraph, telephone, and eventually the internet. Years ago, the futuristic dream they show to depict the far-off horizon of communication technology was a kid video chatting with someone in Japan. Of course, this actually happens all the time today! I am sure they have since changed the ride to make it something more futuristic. Think back to a time before twitter, skype, facebook, oovoo, instant messenger, instagram, texting, cell phones, computers, land lines, and even the printing press. Every time we there has been an advance in communication technology, it has had a major impact on our culture. Why? Because words are powerful. This means we have to cultivate the skills of digital responsibility in our teens.
Our teens have been granted the title of “Digital Natives.” Unlike us, they’ve been born into a hyper-connected world filled with things like Facebook, social networking, status updates, tweets, texts, touch screens, and blogging. Technology has not only changed the landscape, it’s changing the nature of growing up, which in turn is shaping our teens, including the way they think, talk, and act. Let me get the conversation started by listing some areas of concern for me as a youth pastor:
- Safety Concerns – at some point every parent has shared the nightmare of their child interacting with some lecherous stranger online. This is a very real concern, but I think the danger goes deeper than this. Privacy is a lost reality in our culture, but it is something we need to teach our teens to treasure. Teens are growing up in a world that encourages them to share personal things publicly, sometimes over HUGE platforms. They can do this INSTANTLY, IRREVOCABLY, and to an INNUMERABLE number of people at a click. For issues of safety, privacy, and for the good of others, some things should not be shared digitally, ever. Things like your personal information, home address, cell phone numbers, details about vacation dates and who is where, etc. Social networks and platforms like twitter and facebook often include location information via 3rd party apps. This can lead to potentially unsafe situations, especially because it is very easy for things to be more public than our teens think. There are ways to keep some data private on facebook, but twitter is more difficult. Little things like screen names like hotcheerchic99 or something like that can convey information you don’t intend to share. Passwords get hacked, teens forget to log-out, and worse. Oversharing is a safety concern that most teens do not think about.
- Relational Concerns – the digital world makes staying connected very easy, but it can also create some problems. There is something to be said about the loss of face to face communication – why do we think it is okay to do something like break up with someone via a text? My experience with texting as the preferred method of connection is because teens can do that while they are doing something else. They also feel like it is more private and anonymous, and easier to keep from others. This can backfire! We recently had an issue where two people thought they were communicating privately via twitter, but they were actually blasting the tweets out everyone. It was a very personal conversation and should not have been shared that way. Another area that concerns me is the way that teens craft their online identity. It is very common for teens to post provocative pictures online. When you ask them, they aren’t doing this for sexual attention (or at least they don’t always admit it). It often comes from a desire to look older or just to fit in. Teens need to understand that the persona they put online will have an effect on the way other see them and treat them. Teens are often much more bold and reckless online than they are in person. We call this “digital courage,” but it more often looks like “digital stupidity.” They use poor judgment and post something harsh or inappropriate that can hurt themselves and others. Digital communication is not the best means for sensitive communication, especially conflict resolution. This is a lesson our teens needs to learn.
- Reputation management – it is a fact that colleges, employers, and other authority figures in the future will be influenced by the digital personalities of our teens. There is just too much information out there for people not to want to take advantage of it. This could have a direct impact on our teens’ future opportunities. Think about for instance the way that political debates are often happening via social media. This is all going to be searchable VERY soon (facebook just announced advances in this area on 1/15/13). Here is the bottom line: you are responsible for every bit and byte of communication that ends up out there: words, pictures, videos, blogs, sound bites, tweets, and texts. We HAVE to talk about this with our teens. If you teen has access to the digital world through a smartphone, laptop, or whatever – they need to understand the risks very well.
- Information Available to Advertisers – I know we all hate to read the “privacy policies” of companies like Google or Facebook, but they are pretty important. With 3rd party apps, they are sharing and accumulating data on all of us. Claims that this data is “anonymous” might be technically true but misleading. One cultural watchdog gave this warning about the apps marketed to children on smartphones: “The transmission of kids’ information to third parties that are invisible and unknown to parents raises concerns about privacy, particularly because the survey results show that a large number of apps are transmitting information to a relatively small number of third parties. Indeed, using the device ID and other information obtained from multiple apps, these third parties could potentially develop detailed profiles of the children using the apps, without a parent’s knowledge or consent.” This is terrifying, and I don’t think I really understand the direction things are heading.
- Media “Addiction” – I am talking here about the dependency and habitual use of media that teens believe they cannot live without. This is characterized by uncontrollable and compulsive use that has negative health and or social consequences. This is potentially serious. If your teen resists limits that you set on media (which most will!), you need to spend time understanding “why.” Social networking is incredibly alluring to teens, who often fear that they will miss out on something big if they disconnect. It is where so much happens – the gossip, the flirting, the news…they don’t want to be the only one out of the loop.
Something we always try to emphasize is to be prepared with a preventative response to keep our teens from harm, and a redemptive response to help them process their world. The truth is that even our best efforts at prevention are going to fall short, so we need to be ready to guide them to critique, interpret, and redeem the realities of their culture. I am sure we all have thoughts on this subject, and I’m also sure we can all share stories of how our teen has been impacted by “digital irresponsibility.” So what do we do?
- Be digitally responsible yourself: Be a role model. Monitor and evaluate your own use of social media and the digital world. Your example is more powerful than you know. Set an example by using media the way you want them to use it. Don’t bring your phone to the dinner table, and set limits on the amount of time you are online. Get off facebook, be careful of what pictures you post yourself. You can do this immediately by watching the clock and imposing limits on connection. This should include the use of cell phones/smart phones. It is OK to have “phone free zones,” or even to unplug for a day/week/month occasionally.
- Spend time in the digital world together: Be a guide. We talk often about consuming media alongside your teen. This should be no different. Push through the stiff arm and involve yourself in the conversations they are having online, via text, or wherever. They need your help here, they need your wisdom. If their friend was in your home when they had a fight with your teen, you could hear and guide your teen toward an appropriate response. Who will remind them not to be selfish or uncaring, or to resolve conflicts with grace and maturity when these conflicts happen “secretly” by passing digital notes back and forth? They want to keep you out of it, but they need adult help to navigate the digital world. I can always tell when a teen does not have a parent as a friend or follower on an online network by the content they are willing to share! If your momma wouldn’t be proud of it, don’t hit “send” “post” “tweet” or “reply!”
- Lead them toward limits. When you teens are young, “think for them” because they aren’t wise enough yet to limit themselves. As they get older and wiser, encourage critical thinking and processing about the digital world. Lead them with questions and teach them to be responsible in the digital world. The important thing to remember here is that it is much easier to give them freedom and autonomy as they demonstrate maturity and responsibility than it is to take freedom and autonomy away once they have had it. Start young and get in their digital business. If you see them having with maturity, you can recognize that and trust them with some freedom and independence. You need every one of their passwords. It is your phone, it is your computer; they get to borrow it as a privilege if you decide they are responsible enough to use it. This isn’t because you don’t trust your teen, but because the digital world is potentially dangerous and they need some adult eyes over their shoulders until they are shrewd enough to navigate the dangers alone. You need to be very familiar with the safety and privacy features of the digital platforms your teen is allowed to use.
- Establish a Family Contract – Something we have found helpful is developing a family contract for the digital world. Something like this might work for your family, or you could modify it or develop your own. This makes the rules clear to all and provides a talking point for the various areas of danger and concern.