Every time I see a teenager's head down tapping away on a cell phone, I shiver just a tish. I can't help but be haunted by a story I heard while at the Yahoo! Motherboard Summit last summer.
"If just one boy had hit delete my daughter might still be alive today."
She had a crush on a boy. Who didn't harbor crushes at 15? I'm not sure what transpired, but somehow the neural misfires that define our teenage years, combined with easy handheld technology, roused this girl to send a compromising photo of herself to said crush. Couple that with more neural misfires, a teenage boy's hormones on overdrive, a pinch of Big Man on Campus Syndrome, and you have a disastrous marriage of technology and teendom.
The boy didn't hit delete.
Instead he forwarded her photo...and so on and so on and so on. Pretty soon practically the whole school had seen THE PHOTO that was meant for one boy's eyes only. Back in the day if you showed a boy your boobs you were pretty sure no one else was going to see them, unless there was a lurker in the closet during Seven Minutes in Heaven. This young girl was understandably devastated, embarrassed, livid. Her parents didn't know so they couldn't help. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish teenage angst from real pain. As our children grow, we are less in tune with their lives, and technology aids them in shutting us out even more. So swimming in pain, mired in shame, this young girl, resorted to something that sends shivers up the spine of every parent.
She committed suicide.
Because no one hit delete.
I'm not squarely placing the blame on the boys here. As the mother of boys, I am sensitive to how society views their testosteroney stripes. Clearly there is more than enough blame and shame to go around. I ask myself "What was she thinking?! I would have never even considered taking a naked photo of myself." Then again, back in my day that would have meant taking a roll of film to Rite Aid to be processed, and well, that would never have happened. "Texting," much less "sexting" wasn't in our vernacular then. The paradigm has changed. It's all so damn easy now. Too easy. And it's all so permanent. As for the boys, oh the boys. I remember lustful teenage boys. They are a twisted ball of hormones with one foot out the door and the other in their mouth. They are little boys in so many ways while struggling with becoming men. And the parents...how could they know? Teenagers are private, irrational, moody creatures. Anyway, the blame game has no winners in a case like this. It's all so very complex.
I understand why teens need cell phones these days. I can think of a million ways a cell phone would have made our lives easier back in 1980-something. But I ask you this: Do teenagers need cell phones that are loaded with the proverbial bells and whistles? Do they need functionality beyond making a phone call and sending a simple text? Why do we equip our teens with smart phones when they're not necessarily smart enough to use them responsibly? I wouldn't buy my sons a revved up fast sports car when they turn 16, so why give them the handheld device that's akin to a Porsche? It's really a matter of maturity, not just book smarts. The young girl I mentioned was an honor student, an athlete, what everyone would have called a "good kid."
We all made some pretty lousy decisions when we were teenagers, not because we weren't bright or supported by a loving family; we made bad choices because we were teenagers. It's a fact of life and a rite of passage. We all learned from those mistakes, and I'm not suggesting buffering our children's poor choices to cushion their fall. There's clearly much to be learned from failure. But understand that technology has made the stakes higher. We must teach our children how to be responsible on a whole new level. We are raising digital citizens. When it comes to the long term effects of violence, bullying, harassment, threats, suicide, we must take note. Why not keep those teens in our protective mommy pouches for just a bit longer if we can? Why isn't it enough to give them cell phones equipped with just the basics? They get the functionality and peace of mind without the million and one what-ifs. Temptation will lurk in other places, and Stupidity won't be far behind.
Our eager, naive, misguided youth reeked of the same insecurities teens face today. But as the cliche goes, times they are a changin'. Technology, literally in the palm of their hand, has changed the course of maturity. The instant ease with which we can share photos, videos, messages, even the ones we think are private, has granted a dangerous freedom and fueled the degeneration of privacy. The perceived invincibility of teenagerhood doesn't need to be fueled. It's scary enough without technology. It's amazing we all came out of those years in tact and for the most part, unscathed. The scars are still vivid enough to make me shudder thinking about raising two teenage boys. I'm dreading how out of touch I will be (both in their perception and in reality). All Mac Daddy and I can do is raise them with the values we want them to carry into their every action. We can be parents who participate in their children's lives. We can demonstrate unconditional love. We can be responsible with in own digital lives. We can exercise parental controls. We can be informed so that we can educate. We can know and set limits. We too can unplug in order to rejuvenate. We can be their parents, not their friends.
My goal is to raise my sons to be the kind of boys who hit delete.
Check out these resources from Yahoo! Safely to help you navigate the exciting, imaginative online world. You can't start too early and you can't be too vigilant.