‘Growing Up Online’: Good for the discussion!

From PBS's Frontline, a portrayal of teen online lives that's thought-provoking and accurate and thus important fuel for the public discussion on online safety….
By Anne Collier

It's the best piece of journalism I've seen about the online experiences of youth in 10 years of following this subject. It's actually representative of teens' use of the Net and the research we now have on it. If you haven't seen it, consider watching PBS Frontline's one-hour documentary "Growing Up Online" (it can be viewed online at your convenience here). I have a few soundbytes in it, but I'm recommending it not for self-promotion (when I did the interview with Frontline last July, I had no idea how it would be used for a program to air six months later), but because it advances a vital discussion in American society – how teens can use the social Web to their benefit, not their harm. Parents can't really help them with that until we begin to understand how they're using this technology, and Frontline's treatment actually helps.

Some of the experiences the documentary portrays are extreme – particularly Ryan Halligan's suicide and his father's moving account of piecing together how it happened – and others are just challenging, but they challenge the public in an intelligent way. The stories also illustrate a lot that is normal about adolescence, online and off, and what kids' online lives reveal, certainly more publicly than ever, about adolescence as it always has been (maybe we need to ask ourselves what part of what we're seeing in social sites is new).

All the stories have something to teach us. The story of Jessica/"Autumn Edows" has a great deal to say about adolescents' exploration of identity online and how it affects their development to good or bad effect. I would love to ask a psychologist about Jessica's exploration of an entirely different kind of life by having an online persona completely different from her "real world" one. Certainly many adults would find Autumn's photos shocking for a 14-year-old girl, but if they thoughtfully compared hers to the equally risqué snapshots of her peers all over the social Web, they'd see something quite different going on – but distinctions can be made only thoughtfully, once we get past the shock of seeing teenage life more exposed to the public, including to us parents, than it has ever been. As hard as it was for Jessica and her parents, it could be argued that her experience was healthy, maybe necessary for her, although – if this were a different, more reckless or self-destructive child and because her experiment was so public – her experience could've been dangerous.

Jessica's story, thankfully, had a positive ending. So did that of Sara, who told her parents about her secret anorexia and got help after her interview with Frontline. The "ending" of the story of Evan Skinner and her four teenage children in small-town Chatham, N.J., was mixed. We meet a loving, well-informed mother who maybe overreacted a little to scary news-media hype about social networking and, out of a sense of duty to her community, put her son in a very difficult position at school, which temporarily hurt their relationship. We don't know how they're working it out – thank goodness for them we don't – but we are fortunate to be exposed to the questions both generations in that story raise: What are a teenage child's privacy rights and needs (online and off)? How "in their face" should parents get in order to protect their kids, and how risky is their Internet experience anyway? How can a parent tell how risky it is? How activist in a child's school community should a parent be about student online activities in which her child is involved – how does it affect the child? At one point Evan, the mother, tells Frontline that when her son is social networking he's "edgy." She seems to view social networking as causative, when she might consider that it's the socializing, not the framework for it, that causes the edginess. Or maybe having Mom constantly breaking in on his online conversations – in the kitchen, where she requires him to be when he's online – is what makes him edgy. Small questions to us, maybe, but not so small to teens.

No clear answer to any of these questions is put forth in this documentary. There isn't one. A single solution – a sort of "pill" for teens' online safety – would be like a pill for risk-free adolescence. The answers and solutions change with each child and family and change as each child matures. And pediatricians tell us we can't and shouldn't try to remove all risk from their lives, since the risk assessment is how they develop their prefrontal cortexes, the impulse-control, "executive" part of their brains that isn't fully developed until their early 20s.

The program has a few gratuitous dramatic elements – the music, the almost cliche sonorous narrator's voice. But the stories it tells are representative of the complex challenge, and the questions it raises are essential to a progressive public discussion that moves from fear to rational thought and folds in all the forms of expertise we've always called upon for healthy adolescent development – not just that of law enforcement, the Internet industry, and online-safety advocacy, but also the expertise of parents, educators, child psychologists, researchers, social workers, and teens themselves.

Talk about these issues in our forum and tell your friends, your kids, and their friends to come too. Let's keep the discussion going!

Related links

* Of the show, Totally Wired author Anastasia Goodstein writes, "What I felt was missing from the documentary were the teens who are close to their parents and share pieces of their online lives with them, whether it’s what they write on their blog or even playing a video game together…. I also wanted to see some positive examples of how teens are using the internet to create social change, show off their creativity or launch their own businesses…." I agree. Frontline should turn this into a series!
* In the show, there's also the thought-provoking part of the chapter about how teens' technology and online lives spill over into school. Tech educator Doug Johnson in Minnesota has a thoughtful post about this in his blog: "Engage or entertain?"
* Columnist Joanne Weintraub's review of the program in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
* "'Growing Up Online' and still bored" at Mother Jones.

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