Every so often, I encounter another teenage nightmare unfolding on the internet. It starts out innocent, but as the social media machine takes over, it's an avalanche that threatens to bury everyone alive. And I sit on the sidelines, watching all the chaos as society spirals down into another hate-fest.
For years, I've been obsessed with how social media has taken such a hold of our everyday lives. The writer in me is watching every worst-case scenario play out within the digital world, and I keep asking how it could get worse. (Because as any writer can tell you, it can always get worse.)
In the beginning, social media was a brilliant concept. It was a place where people could connect with each other and form working relationships with people who were on the other side of the planet. But as its popularity grew and more people flocked to various platforms, the social dynamics changed. In some cases, the interactions descended into a toxic cesspit needing a HazMat suit with breathing apparatus to even enter. At which point, another platform would seem to spring forth with the promise of a safe-and-inclusive environment.
Regardless of what social media has become, social media and the internet form a huge part of the world we now live in. My children have never known a life where the internet didn't exist—and my oldest is now in his 20s.
Two decades. So much of our world has changed in those two decades.
So, when I see the teenage nightmares unfolding on social media, it's not surprising to me that there is an outcry of people wanting to make social media an adult-only zone. I can understand where the viewpoints are coming from that want to classify social media usage in the same way we do alcohol and driving. But as the number of these negative events grow—sometimes, resulting in the death of yet another teen—there is only one thought that goes through my mind:
Where are the parents teaching their children how to socially behave on the internet?
If you're willing to stick around, I'll do the best I can to explain why I feel that the deplorable nature of social media is actually the responsibility of parents and how I went about teaching my children to cope with the social media cesspit.
It's an interesting tale, involving Scouts, my children, my writing, and my obsession with social media and online behavior.
The 13-year-old beast is an alien.
My children are not the only teenagers that I've had interactions with as an adult. I was a Scout leader for six years, and I started on that Scouting adventure when my oldest was only six years old.
My husband had dropped our son at Keas (the youngest age group within the Scouting movement within New Zealand, the equivalent of Beavers in the UK), only to return home and inform me that he had voluntold me to be a leader for the Scout section. I hadn't even finished my PhD at that time.
Well, I managed to convince them to wait until I had actually submitted my PhD, then I went through all the training to be a leader for the 10- to 15- age bracket of youth—the Scouts.
(Remember that my oldest was only 6 at the time. So, I didn't have a youth in the Scout section. It was just me.)
I found myself in a situation where I went to my first Jamboree at the end of that first year, my second Jamboree at the end of my third year (in Australia), and to my third Jamboree at the end of my fourth year. And let's not forget the countless number of other camps and overnight tramps (hikes for you in the US) that I took the youth on.
So, for six years, I was interacting with youth aged 10 to 15 years old on a weekly basis, and this was BEFORE my own children moved into teenage years. And in that time, there was something that I noticed that seemed to be a universal constant.
Children hit 13 years of age… and they leave the planet.
This alien phenomenon seems to happen overnight too. One day, they're these sweet preteens that want to have fun, are willing to do what they're told, and are actually civil to one another. The next day, they rebel in the extreme and common sense goes out the window. They still want to have fun, but in many ways, the danger factor of fun (particularly in Scouts) dramatically increases. I lost count of the number of times that I had to remind them that they should stand back from that Coke bottle with a pellet of dry ice inside it. (Yeah, dry ice makes for awesome explosions. Ahhh… Those were the days.)
And this alien phenomenon was seen in both the girls and the boys. (In New Zealand, Scouts has included girls for over thirty years.)
I have spoken to other parents, and we all noticed it. Even my mother, a social worker who used to work with youth on a regular basis, had no problem in calling the children of this 13- to 15-year-old age bracket "little shits." She, of course, was smiling and laughing at their inventiveness as she said it, but in those early teen years, children leave the planet and start heading out of the solar system.
And the time it takes for them to come back…? Well, I think my son has returned, but he's now in his early 20s. However, a friend of mine says that she's still waiting for her 26-year-old son to return.
It made me laugh so hard when my son, 17 at the time and just starting his final year of high school, came home from school after a day of being a peer-support leader to the Year 9 students. It was his first interaction, as a young adult, with those of 13 to 15 years old.
"Mom, are they all like that? I can't believe how… off the planet they were."
I just nodded my head.
"Was I like that?"
He then looked at his sister, who had just walked into the house at that moment. He sighed and shook his head. "That explains it."
I couldn't stop laughing. CJ was 13 at the time.
It's hormonal changes.
This change in 13-year-olds is medically documented too, and it all comes down to puberty. The hormones go off kilter, and so too does the ability for rational thought.
The hormones kick in and their brain chemistry goes out of whack. Their bodies are waking up with the drive to become involved in romantic relationships (or their not-quite-stable notion of romance anyway). They're pushing the boundaries for independence, while in reality they need more supervision than ever. And they're prone to explode at the drop of a hat, just because you asked them to help you with the dishes.
You put the volatile nature of the modern social media environment together with the raging hormones of your typical young teenager and you have a recipe for disaster.
It's my job as a parent to teach my children.
I belong to the first generation of parents having to deal with cellphones, laptops needed for school, and of course, social media and the internet. The generations before me have never had to face this level of connectivity with the digital world. Sure, my parents had to contend with MTV and recorded videos, but that was relatively easy to control compared to the private screens of cellphones and tablets.
Because my children were so young when social media came onto the scene, I recognized quite early on that I had to be the responsible parent and prepare my children for this internet era. The generations before me couldn't help me deal with this. I had to find my own feet. I had to learn how to protect myself and my family on the internet—and I had to learn fast!
My readers will know that I'm not afraid of this internet world, and that I'm not your typical internet user. I'm quite techno-savvy, but even I've encountered my own share of negativity and troll behavior.
I will never forget the way I was attacked online because some author didn't like the review I left on her book. Those events have shaped my beliefs surrounding reviews—how writers need to approach reviewing others' books with caution.
And the way I was attacked because I was sharing writing tidbits with other writers online… The Facebook page that resulted from that experience is still there, six years later, but not as active as it once was. Instead, I share writing tidbits with other writers via the Black Wolf Editor's Blog, because it's a platform that I can control. If someone wants to get all pissy with me on the internet, attacking the information that I chose to share, I can delete those comments before the rest of the world even has a chance to see them.
(Added note 26 Dec, 2022. The FB page mentioned above has recently been deleted due to lack of activity and a massive clean out of my social media accounts, but I am still highly active on the Black Wolf Editor's Blog.)
For the past few years, I've been slowly adding to the "We Let Them In" blog series on this blog, showing others how to stay safe on the internet.
A huge part of internet security is directly influenced by what we post, not the system settings.
Once it's on the internet, it's on the internet and can be found by the public.
This was probably the number one thing that I needed to teach my children before letting them loose on social media.
Once it's out there, it's out there, and you can never take it back.
You can work hard to bury things, but anyone who knows how to take a screen capture can turn private communications into public knowledge. Even your tweets are discoverable, as fleeting as they might be. The wrong tweet could result in you losing your job. Don't believe me? Do a quick google search for people fired for social media posts and you'll find countless examples of where this has happened in the last year alone.
(I even found a research article that did a statistical analysis on the topic. And if a scientist finds it worth doing a whole scientific research paper on it, you know the situation has to be bad!)
With so much evidence out there about how what you post is more dangerous than your security settings, it wasn't hard for me to get it through my children's thick skulls about how they need to be so careful about the nature of their posts.
So, when the arguments continually surface about wanting to make social media an adult-only zone, I get it. It doesn't take any leap of the imagination to envision the worst-case scenarios to know how the wrong post can ruin lives. But good can come from social media too.
I landed my first paid writing gig because of my interactions on Twitter, resulting in three chapters in Putting the Science in Fiction.
Making social media an adult-only zone is idiocy.
Because of the way teenagers can so easily get out of control on social media, you have many who strongly believe that we should treat social media like it was alcohol, limiting it to adults only. While I understand the rationale behind this idea, it is significantly flawed.
13 is the minimum age for many social media sites, include Facebook, but in my opinion, if 13 is old enough to be thrust into the limelight as an activist for change (ranging from climate change policies to gun control to LGBTQ+ issues), then they are certainly old enough to cope with the pressures that come with social media—assuming that they have the support of their parents or other guardians behind them to help them learn what they need to know to survive those pressures.
But the reality still exists that even without the so-called support of their parents, if you were to take away what the teens see as a form of expression, they'll do it anyway. They'll lie to get the accounts. And they have the techno-smarts to do it too.
Restricting the social media age to adults only is STUPID!
The average 13-year-old knows more about technology than the average adult.
The 13-year-old youth of today is techno-savvy in the extreme. And the younger they are, the more fearless they are when it comes to technology.
So, if we were really to change the rules and say that social media sites should be adults only, do you really think that would stop them? It's the younger generation who is teaching their grandparents on how to use the technology. Do you honestly think that they don't know the loopholes around the systems?
In reality, when it comes to anything like this, our only defense is to teach our children to be responsible with the technology.
And therein lies the problem.
How can we expect our children to behave using socially acceptable behavior online when we don't?
Many people insist that the best way to teach our children a certain behavior is by way of example. Well, some of us are providing a disgusting example of cruelty and intolerance.
I don't completely understand what happens with the psychology of it, but there is something about the monitor that adds a layer of protection, giving people permission to behave badly online.
Do you remember when a teenage girl excited about her prom dress shared it with her social media, only to be attacked by many adults for "cultural appropriation" of a Chinese-style dress? The attacks went on for weeks—hitting the news—but the attacks were finally ended by a Chinese woman telling the youth how she looked beautiful in the dress and that she should wear it with pride.
Those of us who have been in the writing community for years will remember the nightmare that exploded resulting from a trademark of the word cocky. The way people behaved online during that train wreck still makes me sick.
And I've faced my own share of internet bullies, including from a source that I had first met in person and thought that she was a sweet and caring person. Oh, boy, I couldn't have been more wrong.
It saddens me to know that our behavior online can be so deplorable that the New Zealand government was forced to pass a law that gave the police the power to act against online bullying. The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 was the first bill of its kind.
Anything worth fighting for is never easy.
There are no easy answers to this online-behavior situation. Like every tool in existence (and social media is a tool), social media can be used to great influence, exacting change for the better, but it can also be abused.
There is no point in taking the technology that our children know how to use better than we do away from them. Instead, we, as parents, NEED to ensure that they understand what power they have at their fingertips. They need to understand that they can destroy lives with their messages, including their own.
Our youth have the right to fight for what they believe in, but only together, the generations working side-by-side, can we change the way we behave online.