Young getting caught up in the web

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

Adolescents need to be more adept at seeing the consequences of the new media

LAST MARCH, I wrote an article expressing my admiration for young people, for how they manage to survive and often thrive in a world that is, to put it mildly, very challenging. An acquaintance took me to task, saying that I had downplayed the shockingly hedonistic and self-centred behaviour that young people often display. I replied that young people have always been self-centred to some degree, but given that they are living in such an utterly changed world, the wonder is that the majority of them manage to navigate it so well.

Take the young people who have been expelled from a south Dublin school for posting “vile allegations” about teachers on a Facebook page. Can it be condoned? Of course not. It was a stupid, senseless attack, and potentially disastrous for the teachers involved. There should be severe consequences.

But it is also true that the existence of technology which enables this kind of slur is a very recent development. Facebook was launched in 2004. YouTube came along in 2005. Although the term “smartphone” entered the language in 1997, the first iPhone was 2007, with Android phones coming along a year later.

Although young people are adept at using new communication tools, it doesn’t mean they are adept at seeing the consequences of the new media. Somehow, they don’t think of Facebook as publishing. They

see it more like a private conversation. Yet Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has stated calmly that privacy is an outdated and unneeded concept.

Philosopher Helen Nissenbaum clarified for many what the problem is with the online world. She believes that what is missing is context, or as she puts it, “context-relative informational norms”.

In other words, we have expectations when we share information that certain conventions will be honoured. We don’t expect people to put photos of their wild night’s drinking on the workplace noticeboard where the boss will see them. We expect to have a large degree of control over who accesses our personal information. But social media break those norms, particularly since Zuckerberg seems to think that privacy is only for billionaire founders of social networks.

Young people’s standard answer, when queried about their online activity, is to say that they keep their privacy controls locked down tight, so that only their friends can access their web pages.

The problem is that many of them are sharing their information with several hundred “friends” or more. The loss of control of information in that situation is enormous. For example, they have no control over the photographs that their friends post and tag.

Wearing a sandwich board every day with personal details and photographs emblazoned on it would afford them more privacy than they have online.

In the fascinating Headstrong/UCD My World Survey released this week, it is surprising that cyberbullying did not feature more strongly for adolescents. Some 40 per cent reported they had been bullied at some point. Of those, only 5 per cent claimed to have experienced internet or text bullying. Bullying at school was a far bigger problem, at 77 per cent.

The study is worth a read. It is heartening that it concludes that the “majority of young people are functioning well across a variety of mental health indicators”. Other conclusions will not come as a surprise. Having what the study terms “one good adult” is a central factor in the mental wellbeing of young people. Those who do not talk about their problems have much higher rates of self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

The concept of the “one good adult” is very important. One of the factors that makes modern life difficult for young people is we live in an era obsessed with youth, and preserving the appearance of youth. The advent of the technological era means that many adults feel even more inadequate, incompetent and out of date. So just when they need us most, we are often unsure about what we have to offer the next generation. Yet the “one good adult”, someone who listens and cares, is vital to the young person’s development and mental health.

Interestingly, a significant minority cited a guidance counsellor as someone who could be that “one good adult”, which makes the decision to cut services in this area even more inexplicable. The young people who are not receiving the care of a “good adult” at home, are the ones most likely to suffer from the cutbacks in counselling in school.

As adults, we need to recover some confidence in ourselves, and in our role as parents, and begin to challenge ourselves and our kids. Some degree of self-centredness is normal for adolescents. But they will never grow beyond that, unless they see a different set of values being lived by the important adults in their lives.

We moan self-righteously about young people’s drinking, while waving a glass of red wine the size of a small bucket. We talk about how immature and hedonistic they are, then defend them ferociously from the consequences of their actions, thereby ensuring that learning responsibility is deferred still further.

Perhaps the most painful questions are raised, not by the behaviour of young people, but to what extent their behaviour simply faithfully reproduces the values they have absorbed from their parents and other adults.

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