If you're a parent and/or educator of teenagers, you might want to sit down in your comfiest chair right now -- perhaps with a nice, soothing cup of tea -- because I'm about to drop some unfortunate news on you. Ready? Here it is: The Internet is not going away anytime soon.
What that means is, what appears to be an all-new host of teen problems -- e.g., nasty rumors, numbskull comments and nudie pictures spreading not only throughout the school but worldwide in record time -- will also be around for the foreseeable future. Which in turn means that railing about the dangers of Facebook and Twitter, and calling for kids to turn off their computers and get outside, is about as useful as decrying the pernicious influence of Elvis' waggling hips.
You know that Beloit College "Mindset List" that comes around every fall, ostensibly to identify "the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college" but actually just to make you feel fucking ancient? Here are a few that pertain to the class of 2013: "Everyone has always known what the evening news was before the Evening News came on"; "migration of once independent media like radio, TV, videos and compact discs to the computer has never amazed them"; "they have always been able to read books on an electronic screen"; "text has always been hyper." It won't be too long before that list includes, "Social networking has existed for their entire lives." Adults may still see online communication as an optional complement (and potential detriment) to real interaction, but to the kids we're all so worried about, it's just as real as any other kind.
So, that's just one reason why I bristle (read: foam at the mouth) when I see educators (or parents or cops, whatever) saying things like, "Facebook was the only common denominator" with regard to bullying incidents. That particular quote came from David Heisey, principal of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High in New Jersey, about a cafeteria fight that apparently had its genesis on some kid's "wall." "The statements posted on Facebook led to statements that were exchanged in the cafeteria, which led to the girls fighting," says Heisey. And Facebook is the only common denominator he sees there? Really? One other that leaps out to me is: Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. Also, the cafeteria, the gender of the participants, and oh yes, the existence of some "statements" that set the whole thing off.
Which brings us to reason No. 2 why blaming Facebook for all manner of teen trouble drives me bats: It erases the underlying problem, which is kids treating each other like crap, not the specific vehicle for it. Norman Whitehouse, president of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood school board, offers a letter-perfect illustration of the curmudgeonly ostrich approach still favored by too many Concerned Adults: "This goes further than bullying 30 or 40 years ago, when you would get a bloody nose on the playground."
Let me just give you the bullet points of what's so painfully wrong with that line of thinking:
- Hey, guess what! It's not 30 or 40 years ago! It's right now!
- I don't know when it will hit the Beloit Mindset List, but we have known for some time that relational aggression A) exists, B) causes serious damage and C) has been practiced, especially by girls, for as long as anyone can remember. The idea that bullying always used to mean sucker-punching a boy for his lunch money, and therefore any other form of childhood aggression must be new and strange (and thus the direct result of new and strange things, like Facebook!) is both sexist and hopelessly outdated.
- Also sexist and outdated, not to mention ridiculous? The idea that getting "a bloody nose on the playground" was somehow not a real problem way back when, but today's kids are so much worse (and/or so much wimpier) than we were. Actually, they're pretty much doing what kids have always done to each other, just with more advanced technology. And getting sucker-punched, physically or emotionally, was always painful (even for boys!) no matter how tough you acted then or how much you've forgotten now.
Just as Facebook is not causing the death of genuine friendship, it is also not causing the birth of high school enemies. It only facilitates the malicious gossip, rumors, cruel insults and hormone-fueled anger that have long been a painful part of teenagers' lives. Yes, the use of social networking sites to make some kid's life miserable is troublesome -- just like easily forwarded e-mails and texts, three-way calling, handwritten notes, and all the other public humiliation delivery systems of yore. And yes, the Internet's ability to expedite the destruction of a reputation, or the escalation of simmering tensions, is something parents need to make their kids aware of. But that doesn't mean blaming Facebook and strategizing to lure teenagers away from it. It means you have to start explaining to kids -- ideally before they can type -- that anything you post on the internet has the potential to dog you forever; that secrets you text or e-mail to a friend, no matter how close, could be all over school (and, if they're interesting enough, the world) by morning; that talking smack online might just lead to a showdown in the cafeteria, etc. It means you have to acknowledge reality -- these kids have already grown up online, and they'll be communicating via the Internet for the rest of their lives -- instead of acting like social aggression never existed before Facebook, and there's still a chance that if we all wring our hands really hard, the genie might just go back in the bottle.
Believe me, as a reasonably smart person who acquired both a painfully clichéd tattoo and a serious nicotine addiction at 17, I can appreciate the challenge of getting young people to grasp the long-term consequences of their behavior. But there's really no good alternative to trying. Claiming that "Facebook is the only common denominator" in an otherwise standard-issue (except perhaps for the fact that it was among girls) cafeteria brawl is absurd. To insist that social networking itself, as opposed to the vicious bullying it's used for, is responsible not only for incidents like the one at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High but for self-harm and suicides is to ignore all the kids who were pushed to the edge by whisper campaigns, passed notes and old-fashioned isolation long before home computers were common -- and to continue sidestepping the underlying issue of social aggression. Facebook arguably makes it worse, but it certainly didn't create the problem. And since the Internet isn't going away anytime soon, the only option adults have is to try our best to prepare today's kids for the world they actually live in, not the one we vaguely remember.