The teenage years contain immense changes and produce amazing evolutions, but the road is almost always a rocky one. Emotions flare, opinions change daily, and the culture of today makes the transition riddled with far more dangers than it did in the past. Back in my day (did I really just say that?!), we had to go through the same feelings and conflicts that kids do today, but we had different means with which to deal with them. We had diaries that were locked up with material keys, we had notes that we passed back and forth in school, we had anonymous “friendship books” sent to far-flung corners of the world…
And kids today have the internet.
The problem is that the internet makes it very, very easy to pop off with the first reaction and post it for all the internetted world to see. That means that mistakes can easily become indelible – trapped forever on some horrifically well-maintained server in a cold dark co-lo room, protected from whatever disasters may befall the human race. A sufficiently advanced technology hundreds or thousands of years into the future will find this data and determine that we met our end due to our overwhelming lack of compassion and overabundance of meme reliance.
In a far more immediate way, we create the landscape of emotional land mines with our carelessness and our “need” to be heard “right now”. I put “need” in quotes because it’s not a real requirement for our emotional survival – it’s an impulse to have our feelings validated. The issue here is that not all feelings need to be validated by others. Sometimes the value of a thing is just to write it out, to be able to see the words staring back at you, not necessarily anyone else, and by that, examine them again.
To that end, these rules have emerged through the trial-and-error of our age. Parents and guardians of kids might want to share them, invoking consequences if they are broken. Just like the classic household rules of “look both ways before crossing the street” and “don’t try to eat anything bigger than your head”, they’re meant to both teach and protect.
1. If you’re writing a blog post in the heat of fury or other intense emotion, mark it as “Private”. When we were kids and we scribbled furiously in the middle of the night about what assholes our parents were, outlining in brilliant detail all of their multitudinous sins, it was often in a notebook we hid between our mattresses along with our pilfered porn collection. We were the only ones that ever saw it, barring the few close friends we dug it out for, and years later, we’d go back and read those entries with enormous embarrassment that we could have missed something so obvious or have used that kind of language. Today, a blog post is, as I mentioned, forever, potentially indexed and saved in perpetuity. Total strangers can do a search and find those posts, even if it has nothing to do with what they were looking for. Worse than that, relatives and friends can read that and perhaps rally to help – except most of the time, there’s nothing to “help” with – or worse yet, crawl up the posters behind with the proverbial Blowtorch of Justice. It’s just an emotion and not necessarily something that requires action. And the internet is not so good at telling the difference between the two.
2. When you pick a screen name, be prepared to keep it forever. Oftentimes, we don’t mean to keep our screen names, but sometimes it just works out that way. If you frequent two or three or more forums and you use different names on each, the other people who frequent those boards will get confused and call you by other names from other boards. This isn’t that big of a deal, really, but it can be a serious problem going into the future when you realize that the name that most people use to address you is SexXyKittehRomp3r453 – and you’re really just a 14-year-old kid in rural Iowa. Screen names are not just ways to identify yourself online – they are revealing themselves to be a means of developing your identity. That means that they’re going to change sometimes as you yourself change, but sometimes, those changes don’t stick. Don’t start off with something that’s going to rain embarrassment down upon you for years to come. Be prepared to proudly introduce yourself at RL meetups with your screen name of Jackboots or LARPmagnet. It’s hard for people to take Fr0steeZlutt97 seriously.
3. Protect your identity. This was one of the first rules of the internet, and it’s a classic for a reason. Teens especially are in a particularly vulnerable position when it comes to being victimized by predators – they don’t have the experience yet to tell a shy person from a shyster. That’s not saying anything bad about teens, it’s just a matter of time. However, in the meantime, it’s easy to fall prey. In order to create a bit of safe space, there are three things that I’ve always insisted on from my under-18 crowd: don’t use your real name, don’t use your family’s real names, and don’t ever give out personal information to people you don’t know personally in real life. This is especially true in the public forums because it’s not always the guy that’s chatting you up in the C-box that’s going to be the problem – it can just as easily be the guy who has said absolutely nothing to you directly but has your information, and he’s the stalker that you’re going to have a serious problem with.
4. Photos don’t go away, so don’t make them a liability. There are a couple of different sides to this one. First, the rules haven’t changed: suggestive pictures of kids under 18 still count as illegal pornography, and it doesn’t matter one bit if you were the one to take them of yourself. Also, the kid that wants you to text or otherwise send him/her pictures of your junk (etc) does not respect you as a person, I guarantee it. They’re not old enough to understand quite what that means, so I’m not suggesting that they are Bad People, but the result that you’re looking for is not the result that you’re going to get. Second, do not post pictures of your face to people you don’t know, and certainly not of your immediate surroundings. A sufficiently clever person can suss out where you live with minimal information, so don’t provide it.
5. Keep your friends lists organized. Facebook and now Google Plus give us the opportunity to talk to people all around the world – people we may or may not know how we know. We may end up with 500 or more “friends” on our lists because we’re networking for social games or because we happened to have one particularly popular “friend” in common. Here’s the great thing about both of the major social networks: they can be organized. You can set up LISTS in Facebook for Family, Friends, Mafia Wars Buddies, Knitting Folk, Basketweaving Friends, Political Yahoos, and more. In Google Plus, they’re called CIRCLES, and they work roughly the same way. The point is to keep your friends lists organized like this so that if you want to advertise that you’re going to be working at the charity car wash on Saturday at 1111 Main St in downtown Walla-Walla, Washington, you can tell your local friends that you know personally, and not the creepy guy two towns over who’s been lusting after your Doc Martens.
The internet allows for an incredible range of freedoms that we didn’t have Way Back When – and to a great degree, that was probably a good thing. Now, though, it means understanding what real freedom is – specifically, that you have the right to say whatever the hell you want and no one is going to protect you from the consequences.
That’s the upshot of freedom: that it goes both ways. Honestly, I’m glad to see the change in the world that this is becoming obvious, but it would be nice if our next generation of adults went into their “productive years” with a little more wisdom than Y U TAZ ME BRO?