Isolating Our Youth

I wanted to reflect on danah boyd’s opening paragraph in her commentary on internet safety in the Boston Daily:

…” four generations of parents have slowly eliminated children’s freedom to roam in physical spaces. In turn, children and teens have turned to the Internet to reclaim social opportunities they’ve lost. In interviewing teens, I consistently find that they would prefer to get together in-person, but that parental fears, over-scheduling, and lack of viable transportation often make offline socialization difficult, if not altogether impossible. For many young people, social media fills this gap, and allows them to ‘hang out.'”

This is horrifying to me. As boyd articulates, this idea is nothing new. Joel Best in his book Threatened Children, discusses similar issues in the over-sensationalization of kidnapped children and how that spreads fear among parents. Are we really shutting our youth away from social experiences in the name of their safety? What long-term impact will that have on their relationships, sense of self, and confidence as they venture out into the world?

What I find somewhat ironic is that while we are simultaneously trying to “protect” our children from the big, bad, world, we are also dismayed by the amount of time they spend in front of media — especially television and video games — and how this contributes to an increase in obesity. Adults also bemoan the amount of disclosure and maltreatment that happens in social media (though boyd in her commentary tries to debunk some of that).

We can’t have it both ways. Either we need to trust young people to frequent social spaces in the physical world, or we need to allow them more freedom in the digital world. Or, ideally, both. Learning to trust young people and allow them to make healthy decisions is, in my opinion, the best thing we can do to support them in both the short- and long-term. As USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts  Henry Jenkins has stated:

“Kids don’t need us watching over their shoulders; they need us to have their backs.”

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Reading Between the Lines

I’m currently reading a dissertation as part of a reading committee. While I don’t want to reveal too much (there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s not my work to release), I will share one point that has me thinking. In the author’s analysis of why the internet is conducive for fostering intimacy, she notes that even in the “lean nature of a brief electronic note,” much can be said. In other words, we can read a lot into what is there, and feel the connection between another.

While I think this can be true, I also believe something else can happen: we can read a “lean” message and OVER-interpret its meaning. After all, sometimes a brief message is just that — and there is no deeper meaning behind the words. I can see youth falling victim to something along these lines when getting a note from a crush or potential friend — maybe because when I was young, I was vulnerable to this. I could dwell on the smallest little interaction, searching for the meaning behind it while the person in question had long since forgotten it: after all, there was no meaning to be had. I have since seen this tendency when I was a sexpert/relationship advice person for teens. One of the most common questions I would get from youth all over the country was simply this: “does (s)he like me?” Of course, there was always a story to accompany the question, that went something along the lines of:

“I like this guy and I want to know if he likes me. Today, at our lockers, I dropped my book and he picked it up for me and smiled. I thanked him and he said he would see me later. Then, in math class, I think I thought him looking at me. I think about him all the time. Just yesterday he even sort of waved at me in the hall! What do you think? Should I ask him out?”

This was in the early stages of the internet (1998-2000) and IM was alive and kicking, but not in full swing. I can’t imagine the context I would have gotten along with these questions if there was extensive IM conversations involved. I simple 🙂 would turn into “he likes me;” a long conversation online might turn into a meaningful time together, when it was simply something to do while working on a homework assignment or talking to nine other people that night. Or, it could indeed be the start of a new love. We simply don’t know. When is lean, lean and when is it packed with inneundo and implication? And can we really ever tell without, well asking and as a result taking away the brevity? I’m not sure if we can, but I do believe it’s another layer we need to better understand if we are to appreciate how online communication shapes love and relationships.

Reality Bites

Maybe it’s the kudos received by the movie Lars and the Real Girl, or maybe it’s the recent release of the book Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy. No matter, the idea of people having relationships with, and even falling in love, with cyberdolls (see RealDoll website for examples but warning! This site is not suitable for work) is getting some attention.

In an age where people have commented on the loss of intimacy in youth relationships and the normalization of porn, this news can be especially disconcerting. How can we encourage people to see sex as a powerful act to be shared between two people who care about each other when the very presumption of “people” is being challenged?

But according to a recent interview of Levy, “”love and sex with robots on a grand scale are inevitable.” Granted, this man is talking about beings with artificial intelligence, not static dolls, but the idea of this is so Brave New World. Will it happen in our lifetimes?

Just me and my 5,000 closest friends

A recent article in USA Today profles a 17-year-old girl who has over 5,000 friends in MySpace.

It’s girls like Brittnie who give MySpace a bad rap. She admits she doesn’t know about 90% of the people she befriends. She admits she denies friendship status to anyone with fewer than 150 friends because it means that “no one likes them.” Actually, “admit” is probably the wrong word to choose here. In the article, it sounds more like bragging.

No one knows what friend collecting does to a teens’ self-esteem, understanding or appreciation of true friendship, or ability to form close relationships in the physical world. My hunch is that social networking can benefit all of these things, but taken to this extreme, it could be harmful. How does having thousands of “friends” who you have never met, and never will, encourage forming true bonds with those who really care about you? To me, it smells of a demise of intimacy in our culture that might impact the youth of our generation for years to come. Maybe I am overreacting — like I said, we have no data on the effects of social networking on friendships — but I believe that moderation and selectivity are the keys to successful relationships. Not collecting people as though they were stamps.