Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Challenge of Social Media and Young People

In the last day or two there have been some Facebook posts around the issue of young people, tweens and teens, and discretion in what they post and what they're invited to read in the FB accounts of their adult friends.

A minister writes about talking with the parents of his youth group members of some of the behaviors he has read about on FB. There are reports of law enforcement using FB posts to track down wanted people. Someone mused about FB posts supporting or discrediting alibis in court.

All of this troubles me greatly, but perhaps not for the reasons you might suppose.

It's been almost fifty years since I was a tween, but I still remember with exquisite squeamishness how much I longed to experiment and how scared I was of getting caught saying or doing something stupid, hurtful to self or others, embarrassing or even a "little bit" illegal. Looking back on my tween and teen years, I am so very grateful for the tolerance and good judgment of the adults around me - parents and teachers - who kindly and wisely averted their judgment when I tried on some bad behavior.

I grew up in the inner city of Detroit, and that bad behavior included everything from using multiple variations of the "f-" word to calling a teacher a name out loud in class to threatening to beat up another girl to trying pot and alcohol to staying out late in unsavory neighborhoods. I was a good kid who was experimenting, and the adults in my life knew me for who I was and not for what my experimental behavior pointed to.

I think we've reached a sort of absolutist mentality which is not helpful to how we develop as moral beings. An absolutist mentality makes judgments before it engages relationships. It cares more about "right and wrong" than about Johnny and Mary and what's going on with them. It sends a message of self-righteousness when young people can see perfectly well for themselves our foibles and flaws. I'm not talking about the absolute right and wrong of behaviors like murder and assault. Rather, I am talking about the space for tweens and teens to learn from bad behavior - to make mistakes, confront their mistakes in a loving environment and grow beyond those mistakes with forgiveness and guidance.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that we raise our kids to grow away from us, and part of the preparation for growing away from us is giving them the space to figure things out by trying things out with the safety net of us adults being in the surrounding background. I often think about animal parents and the grief that they must feel, if one can anthropomorphize animals in general, when they push the little bird out of the nest or send a feline cub to hunt by itself for the first time. Things don't always turn out well, but to do less than allow our young ones to experiment and make mistakes means that we cripple them rather than prepare them for what comes later in life on their own.

Parenting, teaching and leading young people are all about building and nurturing relationships. Those relationships must be built on love, respect and understanding. Most of the time, we figure out how to do the love part of being the adult in relationship with young people. It's the respect and understanding parts where we frequently miss the mark. Respect of the young people in our lives also includes keeping confidences (when safety is not an imminent concern) and valuing our relationships with them at least as much as we do our relationships with their parents and guardians.

Understanding where another person is coming from is difficult no matter the relationship. Think about your relationships with your spouse, co-workers and neighbors. When there are disparities of generational age (adult parent and tween or teen child) and power based on experience and control of resources (you've got the years of living, the money and the car keys), the difficulties in achieving understanding are magnified. And suffice to say, respecting that which we do not understand, and therefore, have difficulty valuing, is extremely difficult.

I think that ultimately, having and nurturing relationships with young people, where you as the adult take the time to listen, try to understand what you're hearing and withhold judgment even when you're convinced you're right, might just make the difference in a young person's life.

I just read this morning of a 13-year old who committed suicide. Suicide among tweens and teens is not unusual these days. I can't help but wonder if having an adult who took the time to just listen, not talk, not judge, not be the wise one, but who just listened, would have made any difference in the lives of young suicide victims. Speaking as one who remembers feeling despair so dark at age 15 that suicide was an option right alongside of graduating and going to college, it was a 25-year old adult who took the time to sit in a car in the dark talking with me for hours at a time who made the difference in my life. I will always be grateful for her friendship to a teenager.


Lydia Kelsey said...

I totally agree with you Lelanda. It is so hard to set aside judgment and see that young person for who they are, but it is so important. I, too, made a lot questionable decisions when I was trying things on, trying to figure out who I was. I'm not sure the behavior of our youth is changing as much as it's a lot easier to observe it with it being online.



People like you who are dedicated to working with and among young people give me such hope. Thank you for doing what you do!

I agree that behavior is probably not changing but being under the microscope has definitely magnified as the technology has allowed it to happen. As a society I believe that we need to exercise restraint about what we seek to observe routinely.

The Asians in places like Japan where overcrowding has been a way of life for generations talk about privacy as a mental state. We would do well to learn from that.


Anne said...

What timing, Lelanda! I just had a conversation with my mom yesterday about these topics. It's so difficult to allow--no, encourage--our children to try their wings and then see what happens. I know I err often...

Thank you for this.