Teens and parents from a New Jersey suburb deconstruct the ups and downs of social networking sites in Frontline's latest report, Growing Up Online, which premiered on PBS this week.
The piece weaves together a handful of stories about how the Internet has tweaked family dynamics and how teens communicate with each other. With 90% or more of teens nationwide online, one mom calls cyberspace the "new wild west" for young people. One high school history teacher says that "walking into a classroom without any multimedia is like walking into a desert." Another teacher admits she's landed on the wrong side of the digital divide: "My time is over. This is not for me. It's not the educational arena that I entered into."
The report tells tales of students posting cellphone video clips of big school fights on YouTube, and of kids bragging about how many "friends" they have on MySpace. Teen girls strike silly poses in their homepage photos, and one teen boy brags about his ability to read a Shakespeare play in a few minutes, thanks to a Cliffs Notes-type site called SparkNotes.
But there are two surprising stories as well. One girl talks candidly about how she developed an alter ego by taking photos of herself in goth outfits and posting them on a MySpace page. When her parents forced her to delete all of the photos, her newfound confidence disappeared almost overnight. A father, after his son committed suicide, realized that the middle schooler had been the victim of bullying, and had solicited advice from an online pal about how to go about killing himself. The father learns more about his son by digging through his email chains than he ever had known before. His story is a painful reminder of another teen (not mentioned in the Frontline story) who committed suicide after falling victim to a MySpace friend hoax.
Problem is, even with all the added dilemmas that come along with new technology, a lot of these issues essentially feel like the same ones that have always plagued bored adolescents. Kids interviewed in the story talk about depression, bullying, feeling self-conscious about their weight, being mad at their parents, and being unsure about their identity. Parents talk about not really knowing their children, the difficulty in disciplining them, and not knowing what their kids are up to when they're in the bedroom with the door shut.
These don't sound like cyber-problems to me, they sound like kids being kids and parents not knowing how to deal. Once an antsy suburban kid myself, I can relate. The fancy computer machines may complicate things, but is the box to blame for age-old dilemmas of growing up?