So there's this fascinating article in Sunday's NYT about "Cracking Teenagers' Online Code." In the article, the anthropologist Danah Boyd posits that teens' lives are not that different from how they've always been, but rather, they just have a new forum (social media) in which to discuss their lives.
She contends that parents, lawmakers, etc. are getting all up in arms about cyberbullying, online sexual predators and the like when really, these dangers (bullying, abuse, etc) exist to teens just as much offline. She believes these things are being played out online because children/teens no longer have as much freedom to explore these issues in their offline lives. The days of "go outside and play, we'll see you at dinner" are no longer existent, so kids go to Facebook instead of the playground to talk, gossip, work out conflict, etc.
This article calls to mind the speech Donna Jo Napoli gave at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles about censorship and writing "horrible" books for children. In that speech, she pointed out the benefit of protected/sheltered kids experiencing difficult and horrible things in the world of fiction. In exposing teens to "bad" things in a forum such as a book, we are helping them develop empathy.
So this makes me wonder, how much do we really think we can protect our kids? And how much should we?
If you start to think about ALL the things kids are exposed to, it's paralyzing. PARALYZING. My mother-in-law has told me many times she doesn't think she could have raised her kids if she had to do it today. But OF COURSE she could. She's an amazing mother. And she understands that the fundamental need of all children is to feel safe and to feel loved.
Keeping kids/teens in a protective bubble is unrealistic. They will be exposed to things whether you are part of it or not. The only way to manage, in my opinion, is through open communication and a willingness to answer questions that make us uncomfortable.
Last week, at Sunday school, I talked to my 5th graders about being "called" to something. I told them that I thought my calling was to protect kids because something bad happened to me when I was little, and I don't want that to happen to anyone else. Upon reflection, I don't think that's exactly right. Yes, I do want to do everything possible to keep kids from getting hurt, but really, I think my calling is more about being open and honest and telling a story so kids/teens know it's okay to talk about the difficult truths in their lives too.
I write books about broken teenagers because that is real to me. I was a broken teenager. And I think there is some truth to what Dr. Boyd says about the reality that is playing itself out on social media forums. As long as we also understand that having access to this online world is an opportunity for dialogue. This is an opportunity for us to glimpse what is going on with our kids and we should treat that with respect.
(Oh dear. I hope this wasn't too sermon-y. I shall return to regularly scheduled rambling soon.)