The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance: News Stories Everywhere Claim Technology is Evil, Kids are Helpless

In today’s world of ubiquitous social media, it seems like every day you hear a news story about why social networks are bad for kids in some new way. While I was researching the topic, I came across an article titled ‘Are social networking sites turning teens into substance abusers?’ which seemed like the perfect starting spot for an analysis of media overreacting about kids’ online lives. The article cites a press release from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which states that ‘Teens who use Facebook and other social networking sites on a daily basis are three times as likely to drink alcohol, twice as likely to use marijuana, and five times more likely to smoke tobacco than teens who don’t frequent the sites.’ While such statistics may sound like the standard ‘the internet is bad for your kids’ rant, this article actually did point out that rather than keep kids from the internet, perhaps something should be done by sites like Facebook to prevent teenagers from posting such pictures online. However unrealistic this may be, it is at least a different perspective than the norm. Another interesting point of differentiation from the standard discourse was that about 90 percent of parents interviewed in the survey believed that social networking had no effect on their kids drinking or drug use.

While this article does provide some interesting insight, the major issue that I find is that it directly relates social networking with drinking and drug use, completely ignoring all other factors. This type of technological determinism is criticized in Amy Adele Hasinoff’s article ‘Sexting as media production: Re-thinking dominant ideas about teen girls and sexuality online.’ In the article, Hasinoff points out a CBS news story which, in regard to teens and sexting, stated, ‘When people see these sexy pictures, they are more apt to have sexual relations which will lead to teen pregnancy .’ Again, such a point of view directly blames the technology for teenagers’ decisions and removes all agency from the teens themselves.  Just as Hasinoff provides the alternative view of sexting as a means of expression, perhaps the authors of the article that I came across should consider that in posting pictures on Facebook, these teenagers are simply expressing themselves, but that an issue worth tackling might be how and why the teens are drinking in the first place.

Another issue with how the information is presented in this article is that it mentions a broad generalization in saying that using a social networking site on a daily basis makes teens three times more likely to drink alcohol. Similar to the way in which the article is ignoring any outside context, such numbers should be looked at under a closer light, much like Kimberly Mitchell and her team do in their article  ‘Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study.’ Just as Mitchell and her team find that past studies overrepresent the amount of sexting going on due to vague definitions and flawed research methods, perhaps a more in-depth study would be more informative than such quick correlational statements.

Articles like these clearly try to provoke some sense of panic in parents of teens, much like the video we watched in class about the ‘new ways kids are hiding sexting from their parents.’ News reports like these seem to say that the only way teens can be safe is either by not being on social networking sites at all, or by having heavy parental privacy invasion supervision. Rather than present these terrifying statistics in raw form, maybe these news stories should focus on talking with your kids and teaching them to make responsible decisions both online and offline, rather than simply saying that the internet is an evil place where your kids will be completely out of your (and their own) control.

Facebooking Your Way Through Teenage Years

I was sixteen when I first signed up for Facebook. My parents didn’t really know what it was, and they trusted me enough to allow me to use the site freely. As the site tended to skew older at the time, there was relatively little media coverage on the dangers of Facebook for its younger users. Now, there is rarely an occasion when extended family members or family friends don’t bring up Facebook, and their concerns with their preteen children (or nieces and nephews) using the site. Often I serve as a point of reference, explaining what the site actually functions as and cluing them into what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate in that sphere so they can better understand their kids’ involvement in it. The media discourse surrounding youth practices online has become increasingly prevalent and critical as their practices have shifted in more recent years.

In her article “For Teenage Girls, Facebook Means Always Being Camera-Ready,” New York Times blogger Randye Hoder addresses some of these concerns. Hoder mentions the desire to shape one’s online profile to demonstrate the most attractive (not necessarily positive) image of oneself in these tricky teenage years. She further explains the prevalence of these technologies in teenage social life (one can take a photo and upload it with little to no warning or time to reapply lip gloss), and how it affects young girls who “feel like [they] have to look good all the time” and even go as far as to block the video recorder on their computers (with post-its of all things) when they feel they don’t look as good as they would like. 

Hoder touches on an important aspect of teenage life when demonstrating how important physical image is to girls of this age, in particular. The whole notion of being socially present and popular for youth ties into Boyd’s claims in her article “Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” where she argues that the online sphere is one where teens have a more comfortable space in which to communicate and “hang out.” Since these online spheres and social networks are individually constructed, teens can form their own spaces where they feel more welcome than physical ones that are better suited for people of different age groups. But the inherent nature of these online spheres is ultimately what causes so much pressure surrounding the online presence and how it affects the interactions these youth have in the physical world.

In an age where we are constantly connected, the pressure to be “on” all the time is more present than ever. For teens, there is the added social pressure to be popular, or, at the very least, accepted. Hoder finds that for teenage girls, this social need translates to their posting photos that are highly sexual, from accentuating their cleavage to making kissing faces (some of us so affectionately call them “duck faces”) even to posing seemingly innocent in bikinis, just to appear scantily clad to garner “likes” and, as a result, popularity among their peers both offline and online.

How then are teens expected to navigate this social scene? And how do parents react when they find out that their daughters are posting sexualized images on their SNS profiles in order to feel confident in themselves? Boyd & Marwick, in “Social Steganography: Privacy in Networked Publics,” express that parents want their children protected from online entities that could harm them. However, that is often focused on the threat of strangers or predators online and can ignore the emotional impact that these sites can have on their youth users. And although Hoder’s article brings up these issues, it frames them as a now-inevitable aspect to growing up that teenage girls must face and does little to provide a solution to it. The examples she uses are stated very matter-of-factly, when they really have a deeper social impact than is addressed (until very briefly in one quote from child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman who points out the dangers of sexualizing girls at such a young age). I would have liked the post to have expanded more on that last point, as it seems so culturally relevant today, especially with the discourse surrounding teens and sexting. Is this pursuit of popularity through an attractive profile a stepping stone to more graphic and explicit and potentially dangerous interactions online? Or is it simply a part of growing up that has developed with the technologies surrounding those growing up? Is it something that parents should be more concerned about, or is it okay so long as the pictures are never outwardly explicit? With how difficult of a transition teenage years often are for girls, I can only imagine how stressful and confusing it would be to have to manage two social presences instead of just the physical one.