Friday, September 15, 2006

Teens, Tech, Sex, and Cyber-bullies

What passes for teen literature these days.

Every once in a while we entertain guests overnight and we have teenagers or college students in the house. Inevitably, sometime after dinner has ended and adult conversation has gone on for awhile , I always get the question:

“Can I please use your internet?”

It seems to me that people under the age of 25 really have a hard time sustaining conversation for very long without having to get online and see what their friends are up to in cyberspace. I always feel squeamish about this request but I rarely refuse... We have the desktop in the family room in a very visible spot. I see these teenagers go online and all of a sudden there are chat windows popping up all over the place and all kinds of software flying across my screen that I’ve never seen before. In addition, as you are all well aware, they aren’t into going to bed early. If I hit the hay at 11:00 or so, there’s a good chance that they’ll still be clicking away well into the wee hours, and that makes me nervous. When I rebuilt my O/S last year I didn’t re-install Norton, because my subscription was almost up, and it slows things down too much. Therefore, I worry about where these guys go and what might wind up on my machine.

Last night I was lounging around watching Girl With a Peal Earring on the IFC when I heard Anne call me from the basement, where she was on the treadmill watching TV. She told me that I had to watch what was on Primetime on ABC.

What Are Teens Hiding on MySpace. Is the Social Networking Site a Menace to Kids or Getting a Bad Rap? (see video under "Cruel Kids, Tragic Ends", and "How Mean Can Teen Girls Be?")

It was a story about an awkward teen boy who had a few problems with depression. In fact, he was in contact with another male teen who was actually encouraging him to take his own life. In an unrelated matter, a number of teen girls from his school decided to yank his chain a bit. In a series of IM chats they gave him the impression that they were attracted to him and interested in him. When he responded positively, they turned on him and asked him how he possibly thought they could be interested in a “loser” like him. Between these two whipsaws, he killed himself. It was heartbreaking.

The Primetime program also took a look at the whole MySpace phenomenon, not only in the dangers posed to kids by adult predators, but also in the meanness, viciousness, and spoofs that occur with it, and how many kids are being devastated by the bullying from their peers. Primetime put together a controlled “role-playing” experiment in which a set of “popular” college-age boys and college-age/high-school age girls were in one group, and some slightly younger girls in were in the other group. They were given the latest in cell-phone and internet technology and left to go at it. I was amazed at how nasty things got so fast, and the boys in the experiment were stunned at how bold and forward the sexual references from the girls were. In short order, the messaging had gotten out of control….”slut… whore… bitch…”. Doctored photos… Even though they were supposed to be role-playing, feelings were getting hurt and tempers frayed. The college-age participants were also taken aback by the tech-savvy of the younger kids.

Anne has told me a few horror stories about neighbors who’ve found raunchy, explicit electronic trails left on their computers by babysitters. I don’t know…. I was in a fraternity in college and I thought I had seen and heard just about everything, but I guess things are at a whole new level now. Either that, or there are urban legends out there designed to either outrage, terrify, or titillate adults. I guess I am out of touch in a lot of ways. In even the mildest terms, just take the whole mainstream acceptance of tattoos, for example. It mystifies me. I think it’s barbarism. Where did it come from? If you go into a Barnes & Nobles now, the Romance Novel section isn’t quite what it used to be. Now there’s always a table filled with “chick porn.” I don’t get it, but maybe I’m just getting old. It’s not like it was written by Anais Nin.

In the Atlantic Online, there is an article by Caitlin Flanagan titled, Are You There God? It’s Me Monica. Flanagan explores girl-power, hooking-up, and how something that was once taboo became a favor reserved for special relationships, but has now become commonplace, casual, banal, and meaningless. A throwaway of an act. Almost a way to get rid of somebody. Is this what feminism was supposed to do? Flanagan makes tough accusations towards Planned Parenthood and other feminists.

I’m glad I’m older, and not coming of age now. Between all this and the puerile marketing they are actually making sex boring... When we were at summer camp as adolescents, just the sight of the girls in bathing suits was enough to send us swooning in a flood of hormones. Now, the young guys just seem jaded. Non-plussed. They’ve seen everything, and nothing affects them. As the father of three daughters, it worries me to think that they’ll someday be dating boys who’ve been exposed to all sorts of pornography we wouldn’t have ever dreamed of.

I also worry about my oldest daughters in this respect… They’re good kids, but they don’t run in the popular set. They are, however, very good at Drama, and they win big parts in school productions. Do I need to worry about them getting torn apart by alpha-girls? Do I need to worry about them setting up a MySpace without my knowing, or worse yet, a MySpace spoof that someone else makes about them? Ugh.


Liam said...

Great, though very disturbing post, Jeff. It's hard to say what to think. I remember, as a somewhat intellectual and countercultural wierdo, high school being very tough, especially since there were so many ways to create social hierarchy that were institutionalized: homecoming king and queen, dances requiring dates, cheerleading squads, etc. I was in Spain when Columbine happened, so I couldn't follow the aftermath too closely, but it seemed to me that not enough people were asking why some kids become outcasts.

Technology, it seems, makes everything worse in this case. Emails, blogs,and ims can be done with great anonymity, making it easier to be a predator. Just like with our little blog community(which in our case I think is very healthy), people can get in groups to encourage whatever identity, even if that includes school shooters (the Canadian copycat school killer this week apparently played an online Columbine game) or anorexics (who have created a whole subculture to support their decision to starve themselves to death).

I have no problems with tattoos (as a matter of fact, sooner or later I'll get one), but I'm astounded that people allow their teenagers to get them. Often "liberals" are blamed for being too permissive, but I think it has as much to do with our youth-worshipping culture that makes parents want to be younger than they are, so they want to be their teenagers' buddies and give them whatever they want, deathly afraid of appearing too straight-laced.

As with everything, I blame Madison Avenue.

The ABC story was heartbreaking.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Your post reminded me of those teenage years. Tough years... For me, it was very hard being that age. I can't imagine how the technology and the anonymity must up the ante on the backbiting and the angst. Strange, how the technology can magnify either the darker or the lighter sides of our natures.

So you plan on getting a tattoo? Is that right? :-D What are you going to get? A Celtic Weave? Latin Inscription? King Alfonso on horseback? I work with a guy about the same age as me. Another weary dad. Remember those barbed-wire patterns around the bicep that were all the rage a few years ago, before the faux Chinese characters became the hot item? We used to joke how we were going to get white picket fences around our arms.

crystal said...

About high school - I think people were just as socially twisted in the past as now, but technology and money make it seem more extreme. I was very unpopular in high school and ended up doing drugs and having a boyfirend I didn't even like to find a place to belong. I doubt I'll ever forget some of the mean spirited things the popular people said to me.

I wouldn't blame the permissiveness of sex on feminism or planned parenthood. The pendulem of sex goes back and forth, I think, between decadence and strictness ... if you surveyed the history of sexuality, I'd bet you'd find both extremes here and there.

I want a tattoo too!

Jeff said...


I want a tattoo too!

Aw, noooooooooo!! Say its isn't so! Don't do it!


Jeff said...

Reading over Flanagan's article, I don't think her issue was permissiveness. She doesn't look to be a prude. She seems upset that the promise of feminism seems to have failed in that girls are more objectified and servile than ever before, despite the expectations of the feminists that women would want to be fulfilled, rather than just looking to be fulfillers.

crystal said...

I can't say I even know what the definition of feminism rightly is, but for me it means the belief that women and men are people eqaul in worth, and that they should ideally have equal rights and opportunities. I'm not sure though how that impacts people of either sex being jerks :-)

Jeff said...

Ooops,sorry about that. I forgot that the Atlantic article was subscription-viewing only. Here is a version of the article where Flanagan makes her case that girls have been let down in this regard by the feminist movement, but she does have her critics who have responded back to her strongly.

Warning to all: The article is pretty explicit.

Steve Bogner said...

Norton Antivirus and NetNanny are both installed on the computers our boys use. It's more for protecting than preventing.

Part of the teen/technology problem, in my opinion, is that parents aren't doing their job in protecting & guiding their kids. Parents give in to peer pressure too - from other parents. It's not easy to tell the kids no, or to restrict what they can do and so on, but that's part of the job of being a parent.

There is a tension though, between protecting and allowing; guarding vs trusting. It takes communication, attention, and time to get that level of awareness of just where a kid is at, and what they can handle & be trusted with.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

You know, that reminds me... Shame on me... I really have to get cracking on Net-Nanny or CyberPatrol or something like that. Since we got DSL, my kids are on the web mote than they used to be, although they have pretty limited interests so far, and they don't chat.

I think you're right. Parents need to stay on top of what their kids are doing, and where they are emotionally and mentally. Another factor is to keep good tabs on who their friends are.

John B. said...

As a parent of two teen boys (17, 13) and one 9 year old, we monitor their computer time to varying degrees. Haven't had too many problems yet, I will admit that what they hear at school and among peers is probably much worse, and you can't stop that, you can only teach and model by example at home and hope that it all sinks in (which for us so far it has).

Jeff said...

Hi John B!

Welcome. Very true what you say about teen boys and their peers. I think my 10-year old son hears and knows a lot more than he lets on to me... I guess I was the same way when I was his age.

You know what kind of freaks me out about this? I did a Google blog search against the title of this thread, and it's been referenced on a couple of porn blogs. Weird. They must just do a crawl search aginst the keywords "teen" and "sex"... Bastids.

It's great to hear from another ND Fan! What the heck happened last Saturday against Michigan, anyway? Seeing the results of that game and what happened in the first game against GT, I'm starting to wonder if Brady Quinn is just likely to fall apart when he gets a lot of pressure on him.

As for the Packers... What can I say? Sorry to see what Brett Favre is going through now.

Anonymous said...

All very true. But I think these things will sort themselves out. Calumny and meanness aren't new inventions, even nasty graffiti has been with us for a long time, which is all a spoof myspace page really is.

And the mystery of sex, well I dunno if I am truly that worried.

Recall that we used to think ankles were sexy and cover them up. Now we don't. Have we really lost that much? Was sex ever that mysterious, or did we just build up a lot of taboos about it?

I am not so worried by men being non-plussed by bikinis... I think men could get used to nudist colonies such that they weren't turned on all the time. Who cares? It is just a human body after all, not a dose of visual crack cocaine.

How we treat one another emotionally, however, does matter. I think that the myspace era probably offers us a lot more opportunity for lesson-teaching and monitoring than did "Call Jane for a good time" written on a bathroom wall.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just look at the graffiti on the walls of ancient Rome.