Just as it was for parents, so with their adolescent: the older one grows, the more information one must acquire and manage to cope with life’s increasing complexity.
However, there is a powerful generational difference between back then and now. Today, there is a greater amount of worldly knowledge possessed by adolescents at a much younger age. And the source for this difference is the Internet – that “wild west” frontier of unregulated free speech where everyone, from the responsible to the outlaw, is empowered to publically represent themselves and pretty much post whatever they want to say.
While parents grew up only in an offline world, their adolescent grows up in that plus a vast online world as well. While parents may have had to cope with ignorance from less worldly information than they wanted, their teenager has to cope with excessive Internet exposure to all the knowledge she or he desires. What was very difficult for parents to discover is now very easy for their teenager to find out. While parents may have had no go-to person for their embarrassing or forbidden questions, their adolescent can ask the Internet for whatever intelligence she or he wants, enter it on an ever-obliging search engine, and with the click of a key immediately be given access to a host of sites that speak to what the young person wants to know. When it comes to the adolescent acquiring information about any aspect of life experience, the Internet is a completely permissive, constantly available, and apparently universally knowledgeable resource.
As for patrolling and restricting their adolescent’s Internet access, it’s not enough for parents to strictly manage use of the family computer (what access to sites and interactions are allowed) since that is only one of many portals to the Internet that are available to their teenager. For example, what may be forbidden at home is available independently of parental oversight on the home computers, personal laptops, pads, and smart phones of their teenager’s friends. Just because visiting hate sites, gambling sites, dating sites, recreational drug sites, pornographic sites, quick money sites, social violence sites, and other sites of the parents’ choosing are prohibited at home does not mean they are not accessed elsewhere.
At an age when curiosity seems to have no bounds, the Internet offers information without limits. An adolescent often has more worldly exposure than their parents could wish, and at a younger age. In consequence, when they find out an older Internet exposure has occurred, they have to talk about certain sensitive issues with their son or daughter earlier than they like. Not out to control the teenager’s beliefs (because they know they can’t do that) they are trying to inform those beliefs. Thus they have a responsibility to weigh in with their more mature knowledge and point of view while the young person is in process of making up her or his mind about what to think.
So when parents find out their shy high school freshman has registered herself on an online dating site, perhaps they say something like this. “Of course you think about dating. You want to find ways for comfortably meeting people to make that happen. But posting information about yourself on an adult Internet dating site can put you at risk of predatory attention from unknown older responders who may be out to do you no good. So let’s talk about dating possibilities within your circle of friends at school, in social circles outside of school, about safe and enjoyable ways that you might start the process, even ways we can be of social help.”
Or consider what they might say when, as commonly happens in Early Adolescence (Ages 9 – 13), a time when many older interest awaken, a 6th grader entering puberty has his first exposure to Internet pornography that parents alert to because of the sudden surge of sex site invitations that suddenly flood their home computer.
Perhaps, after listening to the young person describe what he was curious about, what he saw, and what he learned, they begin by putting the experience into matter of fact communication. Of course every parent has their personal values and individual perspective to offer. However, as a possible example, they might (or might not) want to say something like this.
“It’s normal that you become more interested in the sexual part of yourself and relationships as you get older. However, compelling as it may feel to watch, pornography can give you some wrong ideas for managing your sexual feelings and activity as you grow. For starters, pornography makes it seem like everything you see these couples do in a sexual relationship is what you should want to do. It makes relationships seem all about having impersonal sex, with no other interest or emotional connection. It makes casual sex look free of serious harm, with no dangers to beware, with no sexual protection necessary. Pornography gives you a lot of fantasy without much reality. It’s made for entertainment, not education. It’s not a good instructor. So we want to offer what we think is really important for you to consider when it comes to sex, answer any questions you have now, and give our commitment to talk with you about sexual matters that develop, as they will. For example, if you like we can share what we were curious to know at your age and what we believed we knew that wasn't so. You have only to ask."
It seems to me that there are two new information management jobs for parents of adolescents in the Internet Age. The first, as suggested above, is being ready to help your teenager deal with an Internet exposure to older information about the world at a younger age than you anticipated or may have wanted. You cannot stop this exposure. You can only try to keep up with it by talking about it and by trying to place it in what you believe is a healthy perspective.
The second job is educating their adolescent in how to intelligently process this readily available universe of online information. For example, parents might suggest to their adolescent three filtering questions to keep in mind when accessing and assessing this endless trove of information, filtering the good sense from the bad ideas it may have to offer.
There is the Purpose Question (and the matter of Agenda), the Trust Question (and the matter of Truth), and the Application Question (and the matter of Use.)
The PURPOSE QUESTION is: Why is this data posted?
All data on the Internet is posted for a purpose, hung out there like bait to hook visitor interest. So whatever site you are viewing, ask yourself: What is the agenda? Is it to entertain me, to educate me, to locate me, to motivate me, to profit off me? Ask yourself: “Why would someone want me to be interested in this?”
The TRUST QUESTION is: Should this information be treated as valid?
Is it worth considering, crediting, and given convincing value? How can you tell if the reporting, examples, opinions, testimonies, promises, pictures, offers or claims are to be believed and trusted? You don’t want to admit into your core of working knowledge what is mistaken, misleading, or false like short cuts, quick fixes, illusions, and magic solutions. Ask yourself: “On balance, is this too unlikely, too simple, too seductive, too sensational, or too good to be true?”
The APPLICATION QUESTION is: Should I act on, interact with, or put this information to personal use?
Assuming the agenda seems legitimate and the content valid, do you want to place personal welfare on it by utilizing whatever the information is supposed to be good for, be it for education, guidance, membership, or for purchase? Because the outcome is always to some degree a gamble, encourage the young person to take Predictive Responsibility by asking themselves what could possibly go wrong if they used this information, and what plan do they have in mind should this eventuality occur. Ask yourself: “Does the use justify the risk?”
The Internet is a fabulous human invention, and the traffic of endless data is a wonder to behold. In response, the new parental job is to provide perspective when Internet exposures give adolescents worldly knowledge at a much younger age, and to help them learn to sort the huge amount of information that now comes their way for what is valuable and safe, and what is not.
Next week’s entry: The Emotional Minefield of Adolescence