When I was in grade school I was inexplicably terrified that I would suddenly go blind — either by illness or accident. As a result, I read everything I could about blind folks from Helen Keller to fictional characters who had unfortunate accidents. In one of those many stories was a small allegory that I somehow retained with me since my 4th grade obsession.
The story went like this: Jimmy was at a special school for the blind getting accustomed to walking around with his new cane. Accompanied by his teacher, they strolled the hallways together as Jimmy practiced feeling his way through life after being blinded by a firework. He comes across a very sharp corner where marble met marble creating a dangerous edge and says to his teacher, “Hey, perhaps you should put padding on that corner so no one gets hurt.”
The teacher then lays on the life lesson: “Well, Jimmy, I suppose we could pad that corner for the blind children here. However, no one is going to pad all the sharp edges you will come across in life. You’re simply going to have to handle that yourself and avoid getting hurt.”
For whatever reason, this message stayed with me to this day. When you’re a parent of a toddler, the idea is no longer a metaphor but an actual concern. As unrealistic as it may be to pad all the sharp corners in your home — some parents still attempt to do so. And many children still manage to get hurt in other inventive and surprising ways. When you parent a preteen or teenager, the metaphor comes back into focus: What are the sharp corners that kids face today? And is it our job to pad them or to prepare our children for their inevitability?
Consider the potential “sharp corners” facing our teens in this populated and urban area such as Jersey City — the list seems endless: predators, drinking, drugs, smoking, mass transit, burgeoning sexuality, etc. But one of the sharpest edges that my daughter comes in contact with daily is the one in her hand nearly all day long: her smartphone and all that it holds within. My concern goes beyond talking and texting. My greatest area of concern is the obsessed teens have for particular phone apps that promote social networking and image exchange is the greatest area of concern. Most parents have a basic familiarity regarding the apps most teens use such as Instagram, Twitter, Kik, Snapchat and Ask.fm. (No self-respecting teen goes near Facebook anymore.) As a parent, how do we handle our children and their use of social media? Do we categorically forbid app usage or create an ongoing dialogue about responsible app use?
If you’re a teenager, much of your time is spent NOT being able to do the things you want to do. You have to go to school, you have to do homework, you have to squelch your behavior in a way that is socially acceptable. Busting out of those restrictions on Snapchat or Ask.fm is a great way to blow off teen steam and play with a little virtual fire. By now most adults have heard that Snapchat is a way to send photos that will self-destruct in a manner of seconds. But Snapchat gained its notoriety by becoming known as the app that allows you to send inappropriate images that will self-destruct in under 10 seconds. Any kid knows a two-second screen shot will take the impermanence out of that racy photo — and there’s where the trouble begins. If you have a teenager, believe me, he or she has received or sent images that would make you blush or cringe.
Ask.fm gained notoriety too by being the “cyber bullying” app of choice. Questions can be posed anonymously with no privacy or parental controls available. That’s a recipe for either consequence-free bullying or asking questions you’d never DARE ask with accountability. I peeked at a few Ask.fm accounts of teens I know and what I saw made me truly wish I had not. Imagine, it’s after midnight, hormones are bursting through your pores, and it seems like a good idea to ask that girl from school her bra size; then she tells you. Trust me, I chose the most innocuous of questions to illustrate here — they can get as provocative as any adult online forum.
And then there is Kik — an instant messaging app that allows users to communicate individually and in groups. There are NO parental controls and though the rules state you need adult permission and the app is prohibited for the “Under 13” set, it is still wildly popular and unregulated. Billed as a way for teens to keep in touch, it is often used for flirting and sexting. For some teens giving their phone number to some random kid at the mall goes against the rules. But giving out your Kik ID is far less of a commitment and is regularly used as a constant mode of connection by tweens and teens. Parents may think they’ve got the texting thing all sewn up by being able to view text activity online, or sometimes they’re able to read texts without their child knowing because they share a cloud. But with Kik — there is no record of what’s been said — and don’t think teens don’t know that.
The point I raise is that teenagers will find all sorts of ways to defy us and to exercise their flourishing sense of free will. When Snapchat goes away there will be an equally engaging and addictive app to replace it, so trying to regulate your child’s phone could be an exercise in futility. Perhaps more useful and ultimately more practical is to keep a dialogue going about the topics I have illustrated here. Understanding repercussions is not a teenager’s strong point (as evidenced by many foolhardy decisions made daily.) Try talking about the fallout that can occur from a simple touch of send, when the content is not something you’d ever want your parents to see. What goes online stays online — and if it isn’t online then it’s in someone’s phone, just sitting idle, waiting for the moment when a relationship sours and blackmail images are enthusiastically shared.
Recently I started a dialogue with my kids by recounting a story about a girl who committed suicide after lewd photos of her were texted everywhere. I spared no lurid detail — explaining how drunk she was at a party — what the boys did to her — how her friends were disgusted by her behavior (although the activity was clearly not consensual) and how eventually the taunting grew overwhelming for her. This teen ended her life by hanging herself from a belt in her shower. “Whether images were taken under the influence of alcohol or by you alone in your bedroom at night,” I added. “If you don’t want to see them showing up in your grandma’s inbox, then you’d better think again.” If you send a photo of yourself to a boy, and you’re wearing anything less than what you’d go to school in, you better believe he WILL show someone. It’s just human nature.
Instead of adopting a forbidding “you should NEVER do that” stance, it might be more palatable to recognize that it is TEMPTING to engage in behavior that’s provocative — either visually or verbally. It can be fun and thrilling — and when adults do it, they too run the risk of perhaps their employer finding out or being blackmailed by someone who thinks it’s a great idea to photocopy that image and post it all over town. For a teenager the consequences may have serious social ramifications; they risk being humiliated and possibly ostracized by their peers, punished by parents, and criticized by other adults. This is not easy to remember at midnight when “cute boy asks for a booty shot.” The conversation has to be ongoing — layering-in the wrong from right, acknowledging the temptation factor and accentuating the reality — not the momentary thrill of attention.
This sharp corner will always be there. When Jimmy is told he has to navigate this dangerous world basically on his own, he is learning the lesson all parents ultimately instill as they set their young into the wild. “I can’t be there to protect you or think for you every single moment. Please have the good sense to occasionally make appropriate choices.” How they manage those choices is steered partly by our conversations and how each kid is wired. Certainly we will not be providing padding for all life’s lessons.
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