Helping Youths Meet the Challenge

THE world, its lifestyles, and its fads have always undergone change. Largely because of modern technology, changes are even more pronounced today. What was in yesterday is out today, and what is popular today will be obsolete tomorrow. These rapid changes have a marked impact on young people.

A Social Revolution

In recent years, technology has sparked a revolution that has had a profound effect on youths. For example, in many lands the cell phone and the computer have become a lifeline of the adolescent social world. Social networking sites have opened up a whole new world of possibilities. “You can be relatively friendless in real life and then suddenly have hundreds of friends online,” says a 19-year-old girl in Australia.

Few would deny that the cell phone and the Internet have numerous benefits. For many people, however, these tools seem to have become addictive. University Professor Donald Roberts notes that some students “can’t go the few minutes between their 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock classes without talking on their cell phones.” He says: “It seems to me that there’s almost a discomfort with not being stimulated​—a kind of ‘I can’t stand the silence.’”

Some youths even admit that they feel hooked. “I’m totally addicted to instant messaging and my cell phone, because they’re how I keep up with my friends,” says 16-year-old Stephanie. “When I get home, I go online immediately and stay on . . . sometimes till 3 A.M.” Stephanie’s monthly phone bill is anywhere from $100 to $500. “By now,” she says, “I owe my parents more than $2,000 in excess charges. But I’m so used to having my cell with me all the time that I can’t live normally without it.”

The problems can be more than financial. While doing a study on family life, anthropologist Elinor Ochs found that when a working parent came home, the spouse and kids were often so absorbed in what they were doing that 2 out of 3 times they did not even say a greeting! They just kept on monitoring their electronic gadgets. “We also saw how difficult it was for parents to penetrate the child’s universe,” says Ochs. She adds that during the study parents were observed actually backing  away, retreating from kids who were absorbed in whatever they were doing.

Online Social Networks​—Harmless?

Many parents and educators are concerned about the amount of time youths spend visiting what are called online social networks. These are Internet sites that allow members to create a Web page and enhance it with pictures, videos, and diaries, called blogs.

One attraction of such sites is that they enable members to keep in touch with friends. Another is that setting up a Web page allows a youth to express his identity, to “make a statement.” The appeal is understandable, for adolescence is a time of learning about oneself and revealing one’s feelings in a way that reaches and moves others.

One problem that arises, though, is that some individuals create a Web-site persona that reflects who they want to be rather than who they are. “There’s a kid in one of my classes who says he’s 21 and lives in Las Vegas,” states a 15-year-old boy. Both youths live about a thousand miles [1,600 km] from that U.S. city.

Such deception is quite common. “You can do anything on the Net,” confides an 18-year-old Australian girl. “You can become a whole different person because no one really knows you. You feel confident. You can make up things so that you seem to be more interesting. You can put pictures of yourself wearing things or doing things that you would never wear or do in real life. You can write things you would never say in person. You feel as if you can get away with anything because you’re hidden. No one knows who you really are.”

As with any mode of communication, online social networks can have legitimate uses as well as potential abuses. As a parent, do you know what your children are doing online? Are you making sure that your children are using their time wisely? * (Ephesians 5:15, 16) Furthermore, misuse of the Internet can expose a youth to a number of serious dangers. What are some of these?

The Darker Side of Cyberspace

The anonymity of the Internet makes it a hunting ground for child predators. Youths can unwittingly become ensnared if they give out personal information online or agree to meet  a person with whom they have been corresponding. Some people argue that “children face more serious threats of violence or abuse in their own homes or on the playground,” says the book Parenting 911. “Yet there is something insidious for most parents about sexual provocateurs being able to reach into their homes through a screen and tamper with the innocence of their children.”

There are other ways communication technology has been exploited. Some youths have engaged in “cyberbullying”​—relentless online teasing, ostracizing, harassing, or threatening. Web sites have been set up purely to humiliate someone, while e-mail, chat rooms, and the like have become conduits for slander. The director of an online safety group believes that up to 80 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 have been directly or indirectly affected by cyberbullying.

Granted, bullying is not new. But now rumors, gossip, and slander can travel much farther and infinitely faster. It often gets far nastier too. In some cases, cell phones with a built-in camera have been used to take rude and potentially embarrassing photographs and videos, perhaps in a school locker room or shower. These images have then been placed on the Internet and sent to any number of eager recipients.

Growing Public Concern

Such matters prompted the Department of Law and Public Safety in New Jersey, U.S.A., to send a letter to parents and guardians, urging them to “help us respond to an emerging concern regarding the inappropriate use of the Internet among children, both in and out of school.” The letter expressed particular apprehension over the posting online of personal information and photos. Sites divulging such details are often magnets for unscrupulous youths and adults. “As a parent,” the letter stated, “you need to know that concerns over these issues are very real, and that you can play an important role in keeping your children safe by getting more informed and involved in your children’s use of the Internet.”

Yet, some parents know surprisingly little about what their children are doing online. One mother, who closely monitors her 16-year-old daughter’s online activities, states: “Parents would be absolutely horrified and embarrassed if they knew what their children were posting and discussing.” According to an Internet safety expert, some young people are posting photos that are sexually very suggestive.

Negative Effects

Is all this alarm merely the paranoia of overconcerned adults who have forgotten what it is like to be a teenager? The statistics suggest otherwise. Consider: In some areas, nearly a third of boys and girls between 15 and 17  years of age have had sexual intercourse. More than half of teens between 13 and 19 say that they have had oral sex.

Has technology contributed to these sobering statistics? Undoubtedly. “Cellphones and the Internet, which offer teenagers an unparalleled level of privacy, make hooking up that much easier,” says a New York Times Magazine report. * Indeed, setting up a clandestine meeting with a member of the opposite sex takes little more than a few keystrokes on the computer. In one survey, more than 4 out of 5 girls admitted that they are not as careful as they should be while online.

Some who are looking online for a date or a hookup get more than they bargained for. ‘We have seen an increase in sexual assaults,’ states Jennifer Welch of the Novato Police Department in California. She says that many victims first contact their future assailant online and then agree to meet in person.

Beware of the “Wisdom of the World”!

Teen advice columns in newspapers and magazines tend to take a soft stance when it comes to young people and sex. Although they give a nod of approval to abstinence or moral purity, their main goal is to encourage “safe” sex rather than no sex. ‘We can’t stop them,’ the reasoning seems to be, ‘so at least we can teach them to be responsible.’

In an article posted on one respected Web site for teens, the issue of whether to have sex or not boiled down to three factors: (1) the risk of pregnancy, (2) the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, and (3) the importance of deciding if both parties are emotionally ready for the experience. “In the end, it’s your decision to make,” the site says. Only a passing reference is made to discussing the matter with a parent. And there was not even a mention as to whether such sex is right or wrong.

If you are a parent, surely you want something better than the fickle and foolish “wisdom of the world” to guide your children. (1 Corinthians 1:20) How can you help them to navigate their way through adolescence and avoid the dangers discussed in this article? The answer may not be as simple as unplugging the computer or taking away the phone. Surface solutions rarely reach the heart. (Proverbs 4:23) Consider, too, that your children may be using such devices as the cell phone and the Internet to address certain needs that you as a parent may be able to address far more effectively. What are some of these needs?

[Footnotes]

^ par. 13 Rather than simply condemn the Internet, parents would do well to familiarize themselves with the sites that their children frequent. In this way, children can be helped to ‘train their perceptive powers to distinguish right and wrong.’ (Hebrews 5:14) Such parental lessons will serve the children well as they enter adulthood.

^ par. 23 The term “hooking up” can mean anything from spending time together to having intercourse. In this context, it refers to having sex for physical gratification with no emotional attachment.

[Blurb on page 4]

“When I get home, I go online immediately and stay on . . . sometimes till 3 A.M.”

[Blurb on page 5]

“You can do anything on the Net. You can become a whole different person because no one really knows you”

[Blurb on page 7]

“Parents would be absolutely horrified and embarrassed if they knew what their children were posting and discussing”

[Box/​Picture on page 6]

Social Networking​—One Girl’s Story

“I began to use our school Web page to interact with fellow students and teachers. I started with one hour a week. Soon I was on every day. I felt so addicted that when I wasn’t on the Internet, I was thinking about it. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I got behind in my schoolwork, I wasn’t listening at Christian meetings, and I even ignored my real friends. My parents finally realized what was going on and limited my use of the Internet. That was hard for me. I was very mad. But now I’m happy that things worked out this way, and I have adjusted very well. I never want to feel addicted again!”​—Bianca.