Safer internet day has made me reminisce about my childhood and how grateful I am to have been born in an era where none of my embarrassing trends or attempts to fit in would be eternally documented online. There is every chance the internet will outlive humans, so theoretically, I could have been a source of mockery and ridicule to the end of time when the only remaining evidence of human existence is a hard drive, full of all the delightful stuff on “The Way Back Machine” (you know, the thing that documents everything ever uploaded to the internet).
I’ve been incredibly blessed that my eldest daughters are total prudes and rule followers. Still, they definitely don’t get that trait from me. I have wondered what message would have worked on an impulsive, instant gratification-seeking teen like myself.
The messages out there on Internet Safety are as clear as mud. I read them and understand them. However, as an adult, I have life experiences that help me consider different choices and how they may or may not affect my life trajectory. Even with all the worldly knowledge and experiences I have collected over my 40+ years, I am still occasionally struck down with bouts of ill-advised decision-making. I will stare solemnly at my husband Ben, nodding at appropriate intervals while he explains budgets & consequences of not following them. Then, two seconds later, I will skip out of the house, see something I want, and all rational thought will escape my mind as I hand over a card to pay for whatever shiny object has caught my eye.
This form of excitable and fickle decision-making is an art, practiced for centuries by many teenagers. They hear a message, and they hear about the consequences. But in the moment, it just feels good or right to do whatever it is that all the other kids are doing, in order to be cool by proxy. Teenagers are notorious for living in the moment and desperately wanting to fit in at any cost. Not all teenagers, but I’d hazard a guess a good proportion of them.
So how do we make messages stick in the minds of the teens who are struggling to fit in, feeling like they are ‘weird’, or desperately searching for attention? My wise 17-year-old said to me the other day (in regard to dog training), “they (dogs) just want attention. They don’t care if that attention is a treat for doing something good or yelling at them for doing something bad. To them, attention is attention.”
The same may be true for teenagers. They don’t mind the odd bit of negative attention for breaking the rules. In my day, rule-breaking involved wagging school and smoking behind the sports shed. Nowadays, I’ve heard wagging is virtually impossible, and no teenager can buy cigarettes without first selling a kidney. So how do they rebel? Whilst wagging school and smoking isn’t ideal, the consequences I faced when I was inevitably sprung (detention) didn’t affect the trajectory of my life. Contemporary teens who engage in the age-old tradition of parental defiance risk having evidence of their bad choices permanently etched online. The Twitterverse will hoard the precious evidence of these wrongdoings, waiting patiently for an appropriate time to unleash the details in their full glory, achieving maximum reputational damage.
We cannot expect teenagers to make rational decisions every moment of their teenage years. The trouble is, it only takes one moment of impulsive decision-making to have horrendous consequences for the rest of their lives. Teens are told that sending self-generated images could result in them being charged with the distribution of child abuse material. To tar a youth with the same brush as a child sex offender is unfathomable. Whether or not youth are regularly charged with this offence is not the point. The fact that we say that they are criminally culpable means they carry the fear of being exposed into adulthood. So how do we ensure they never make an incorrect compulsive decision in the heat of the moment? I don’t have the answer yet, but I am spending many hours reflecting on my youth and thinking about what would have worked for me.
As bad as smoking behind the sports shed and wagging the odd class are, I’m certainly glad I could rebel in this way. Technology eliminating possible methods of rebellion hasn’t led to more compliant teenagers. Instead, teens have found creative ways to wield the power of technology to rebel in ways that are far more dangerous. I’m certainly not advocating that we cheapen the price of cigarettes and overlook the odd wagged day of school; I’m just pointing out that teenagers have always, and probably will always, want to do the exact opposite of whatever it is their parents tell them to do. Obviously, parents don’t understand anything about their (the teenagers) life because as far as they are concerned, we’ve been parents forever. This is true in some respects, and we have been daggy parents as long as we have known them.
Tackling this issue will take more than one day and more than a description of the consequences. There may be effective programs out there that I am not aware of. If this is the case, I apologise to the authors of those effective programs and plead with them to do more to share their knowledge. As fast as we deliver safety messages to our youth, predators are equally fast in finding covert loopholes.
So the point of my blog, and it does have one, is that I don’t have the answer yet. But I will try my hardest to figure out a way to solve this problem.