Wes: I saw my first PC in 1978. I was 15, and like any teen I quickly put it to its best possible use. I wrote a little program that printed on the screen: "Hi, Wes. I'm the Radio Shack TRS-80." It was amazing. Technology has changed a bit in 30 years, but kids haven't. They're still trying to put computers to their best possible use. Except now when you write a program to say "hi," someone 15,000 miles away can respond. It's amazing.
Unfortunately, technology nearly always outpaces good judgment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our relationship with the Internet, especially among teenagers. I'm no technophobe by any means. I've routinely commented that the Internet is a far safer place to hang out with friends than the real world, where creepers can actually do you some harm. However, I have come to believe that parents must get a better grip on technology in order to make them safe and successful consumers. While one may feel safer with CyberNanny on the box, in reality there's no way to keep teens isolated from Internet problems. Instead, you must rely on a decidedly low-tech solution: one-to-one communication to apply values and ethics to a teen's Internet use.
First, we must accept that kids are active participants rather than potential victims of the Internet. Nothing on the Web comes blasting out of the wall and down your ethernet cable without some assistance. Even the nastiest spams require a response by the reader. Every case I've seen of bad Internet experiences has included a healthy dose of being in the wrong virtual place, doing the wrong virtual things, at the wrong time. Thus, teaching kids how to be safe on the Internet - or in the real world, for that matter - requires us to focus less on offenders and more on what attracts our children to the places we don't want them to go.
To get started, here's our list of Internet foibles. If any of them are out of your awareness as a parent, I suggest you spend some time catching up, because they aren't out of your teen's awareness.
¢ Pornography. I'm no prude, but I am astonished when a parent challenges me to surf what's available online - usually after they've caught their child viewing something disturbing. Things have really changed. I'm not going into detail here, but the amount and "diversity" of what is available online at no charge is really beyond reason. Back in the day, psychologists assured parents that kids sneaking a dirty magazine or book wasn't necessarily harmful and should not be punished with shame and guilt. I can no longer give that advice, because by any standard so much of the Internet pornography is violent and degrading - all right there for anyone to peruse. My biggest concern is that these images portray sexual acts in a way that is counter-educational - they teach kids the wrong manner, attitude and method of sexuality. It's about as helpful as a drunk driver teaching drivers ed. The short answer to this problem is to beat the Internet to the punch. Have open discussions with pre-teens about sex. Make it a natural and healthy topic, and always within the context of some value system. The more we make sex seem perverse or uncomfortable, the more we redirect kids toward the Internet as a sex-ed teacher. Whatever your values are, they won't be reflected there.
¢ Privacy and human rights: There's growing concern that modern teens do not have the same sense of privacy for themselves or others, and the Internet contributes to this. We all realize that teens tend to act before they think things through. That's been true forever. What's new is the ability to capture these actions on video, text messaging, IM and e-mail, then distribute them to a worldwide audience with a few mouse clicks. If ever there were a downside of the Internet, this is it. Parents need to discuss Internet conduct with their children both from a defensive standpoint and an ethical one. Teach what is right and wrong online - just as we suggest with sex and drugs - and how to avoid being a victim or a victimizer. In the online world, it's all too easy to end up as one or both.
John: Respect intellectual property. Most teenagers would not swipe a DVD from Hastings. But ripping off intellectual property online is no less harmful. Books, movies, video games and albums require tremendous investments in human capital. If the investment is not recouped, people will stop making them. In some cases TV shows have been canceled when pirates made their material available online. In America alone, movie pirates are responsible for the loss of 141,000 jobs and $20.5 billion dollars of industrial output.
Equally distressing is the trend toward students copying essays from the Internet. While all the statements about intellectual property apply here, one must also remember that it's actually more difficult to get away with plagiarism than it is used to be. Anti-plagiarism software is making huge strides, and teachers can often tell when the tone of a work is not that of their student. Students who get caught are often punished with failing grades, while those who don't often go on to commit bigger acts of dishonesty. Colleges and employers are much less forgiving.
Use in moderation: Although Internet addiction is not formally recognized as a disorder, it is easy to be sucked up in the vast array of amusement available online. This can lead not only to time management problems, but also a single-minded view of what is available in the larger world. Many of my peers use the Internet exclusively when doing research, forgetting to investigate material available in print. The Internet is an astonishing tool, but like all good things, it must be used with temperance.
Next week: A reader asks what therapists have to tell parents and police officers.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.