Many of you may have seen the news coverage in the past few weeks where a group of adolescent girls were arrested for the assault of one of their peers. The assaulted young girl was a close friend of the group of girls who brutally beat her. In fact, they had just enjoyed a slumber party together over their spring break. Days later, she was assaulted until she fell unconscious and suffered permanent injuries. What went terribly wrong?
News coverage indicated that Internet conversations were at the center of this tragedy. “Trash talking” on Internet Web sites became the fuel that heated the fire of adolescent gossip. While gossip among social circles has always been a painful dynamic, especially in adolescence, it carries new weight when spread through the wires of technology. The intensity of damage is immeasurable. In one click of a button, a tremendous about of scandal is created — a kind of pain with severe and lasting consequences to the human spirit. For these young girls, the effects are profound and forever life-altering.
While this tragic event calls our attention to the extreme display of tension and conflict among friends, it also begs us to take a closer look at the daily behavior existing among our adolescents and their use of technology. On a daily basis, young women and men are deeply impacted by the cyber words and deeds of their peers. The current course of tech-savvy teens may be headed in a particular direction in need of new guidance. My hope in beginning this conversation today is to encourage parents and children to consider several aspects of technology use and examine where corrections are needed and parental inventions are necessary.
Never before in our history have adolescents and young adults had access to the abundance of technology available to our culture. We are in a tremendous and significant era of technology shaping our experience of communicating. The numerous options of communication and the ease of conversation via mediums of technology have transformed our lives. Few can deny the ways our culture has changed. What we have yet to uncover are the effects such change will have in the lives of our young people. Perhaps this group of young girls provides an extreme (but valuable) glimpse at some of the potential consequences when Internet use is not used in productive and honoring ways.
Quite frankly, I am becoming concerned. I have been in the presence of young adults who speak of a desire to enjoy connecting with friends and family through mediums of technology — with a degree that balances well additional activities and interests. They seek realms of reality before entering virtual worlds. Their use of technology enhances relationships rather than cause dissension. We can rest easy in the choices of these young people. However, not all adolescents know such balance or perspective. Technology has become far too powerful in their lives. It has overtaken them. As such, their behavior surrounding technology mirrors that of addiction and/or social bullying. Perceptions of reality are altered. These areas are where my concern resides.
Personal Web sites and blogs have become a consistent part of our culture. MySpace and FaceBook have become household names. They have become a social phenomena and an integral means of social networking for our young people. Often their use can be a fun and creative means of connecting with friends. At other times, its use can be dangerous and socially damaging, as in the case of this recent tragic event. It is imperative that young people using these mediums distinguish between real and virtual worlds, and are able to emotionally respond congruently and appropriately to each of these domains. It is also vital that Internet communication be complementary to social relationships, not replacing their presence and/or being used as a means of avoiding human interaction, conflict resolution and intimate relationship. In any Internet dialogue, content should be respectful, honoring and convey integrity for the well-being of all parties involved.
As teens and their families navigate the use of technology in their home, I have noticed these Web sites have become a source of concern and tension among families — as teens desire freedom in these regards and as parents seek to implement limitations inspired by care and protection. Parents, as you and your children have conversation about their use of the Internet, I offer the following: Never speak with people you haven’t already met in person or who haven’t met a close friend or family member. When communicating with online acquaintances and friends becomes more important than the real people in your world, it’s time to re-evaluate Internet access. If the Internet has become a tool for speaking in disparaging ways regarding peers, it’s time to turn it off.
Where technology is used to enhance and nourish a relationship, it has the potential to bring change and transformation to sustain relationship for a lifetime. I have a sense though that stories where this is true among our young people may be the exception and not the rule. I encourage your family to discuss together the values and expectations surrounding the use of technology in your home and in your lives. Celebrate together where success feels present and seek change where corrections are needed. I wish you good luck in your family’s tech journey.
Shannon Renae West is a licensed family therapist serving families on the Eastside. She can be reached at (425) 415-6556.