There comes a time in every parent’s life, when you realize that you’re finally out of touch with what kids are “into” these days. When it comes to the Internet and technology, it’s even more true.
It isn’t so much that a person who’s over forty doesn’t “get” the Internet or doesn’t know how to use the latest mobile apps, it’s just that the way each generation grows up alongside technology has changed significantly over the last several decades.
My father enjoyed his childhood free of computers, learning math using a slide rule. Calculators were one of the greatest advancements of his time. I grew up playing DOS-based Sierra Adventure games on slow-as-dog PCs running off a floppy disk and no hard drive. My daughters? Well, since age three they were fluent mouse and keyboard users – developing their math and reading skills off the screens of the modern computers and tablets of today.
It’s these generational differences that have led to the issues described below.
Teens and Parents Use Acronyms Differently
Acronyms are not new. The world’s greatest scientists would have had difficulty with equations if they couldn’t use letter substitutes for things like force, energy and mass.
Government agencies and the military use of acronyms predates the Internet itself. However, the Internet and the need to shorten an ever-expanding list of words and phrases led us to the acronym-rich world we live in today, and all of the problems that come with it.
Misunderstanding abounds. Adults, brought up in a world where acronyms were normally developed and used over a long period of time by a lot of people, are unprepared for the rapid pace with which acronyms develop on the web today.
Today’s teens grew up in a world filled with instant messaging and texting, developing a natural ability to not only replace word for letters, but also to quickly comprehend incoming messages where the same has been done to the text. The teenage ability to decipher seemingly gibberish phrases is almost paranormal in nature because of this.
For a teenager, acronyms are part of normal, everyday language. Parents were not brought up like this, so communicating with the younger generation becomes a greater struggle as each year passes.
Teens Seem Naturally Gifted With Technology
I am both proud and ashamed to admit that my oldest daughter was capable of making full use of a computer mouse and keyboard at age three.
I am proud, because her technical capabilities have blossomed to the point where at age 16 she is well on her way toward a computer science degree. I am ashamed, because this emotional and mental development alongside computers (and these days, tablets) are impacting the personalities and behaviors of these children as they move into young adulthood.
On the one hand, the last generation of parents doing this has led to a whole generation of teens who now intuitively understand the graphical interfaces and settings of most modern apps and web services, things the adults who raised them are still struggling to understand. Things like auto-correct.
It isn’t so much that these teenagers have greater cognitive brain capacity than their parents, it’s just that using a tablet as a baby, and a computer as a toddler, essentially integrates how modern menu systems, window management, mouse control and touch-control features work – many things that are basically consistent from one application to the next.
Kids just seem to “get it” that the settings menu is the place to go when you need to change something like auto-correct on your smartphone text messenger. Their parents may struggle to understand how to open the text messenger in the first place.
For Teens, The English Language is Always Changing
On my drive home from work one day, as I was listening to a tech podcast, the topic of “Netflix and chill” came up. I was surprised to learn that the term has evolved rapidly from 2011 through 2015 from simply relaxing and watching Netflix to a slang pretext for sex.
— spooky maddie. (@maddiewelborn) October 12, 2015
Surprised to hear this – and shocked that I hadn’t heard about this bit of web-slang earlier–- what with being as “connected” as I am to all things tech-related, I decided to do a test at supper that night to see if my teen daughters are in fact more aware of this “new language” than I am.
“So, girls, does Netflix and chill really mean what I think it means?”
The girls exchanged a quick, knowing glance at one another, and then both burst into laughter. That told me all I needed to know.
Even with the confidence that I am a fully plugged-in, extremely tech-aware individual who spends every single day on the Internet for hours, I am still disconnected from the constantly evolving evolution of the English language being created by teen culture and their migration into adulthood.
— Sarha (@smazy91) October 8, 2015
If you’re over thirty and you’re reading this, I think it’s time for all of us to accept that the English language, as we know it, will be forever and severely impacted by this thing we call the web. I don’t think there’s really any way to change or stop this. Nor should we.
Teens Are Desensitized to “Bad Words”
There is another side to this that is a little more disturbing, and that is the effect that years of an always-connected life have had on the emotional development of today’s teen.
There are two effects actually – a lassaiz-faire attitude toward online privacy and security, and a desensitization to emotionally charged words and hateful language.
It's ok to be gay, Just don't be a fag about it.
— Scythe? (@Bramvg1) October 12, 2015
An Associated Press-MTV poll of teens in 2011 revealed a number of disturbing facts about how today’s teenagers feel about the appropriateness of using hateful words on the web.
- 71% admitted they were more likely to use hateful language online or in text messages than they would in person
- 61% felt seeing the N-word used online wouldn’t offend them much, or at all
- Only 28% of teen boys considered “slut” to be offensive
- Just 23% of straight teens considered “gay” to be offensive
- Over 60% view anti-black jokes to be acceptable
One cause of this could be the fact that having grown up “online” for a majority (or for their entire) lives, the slurs and nasty language that have always been a part of high school life, are now making it in front of a larger, global audience.
This is only getting more prevalent, as more mobile devices and apps assist teens with integrating every waking moment of their life onto the Internet, in some form or another – whether it’s posting breakfast to Instagram, sending inappropriate body-pictures to friends via Snapchat, or venting about a teacher on Twitter or Facebook.
Most adults over 30 understand and appreciate that the Internet is now a regular part of life, but few adults truly understand just how dramatically the Internet has synthesized its way into so much of today’s teenage life.
Conspiracies Are a Part of Teen Life
If you look at the demographics of people who believe in conspiracies surrounding the assassination of JFK, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or whether the moon landing was faked, nearly twice as many teens believe in them as adults do.
The evidence on this is pretty clear. According to a 2013 survey by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research titled Public Opinion on Conspiracy Theories, every single conspiracy survey revealed that many more teens are likely to be “believers” these days.
According to the survey:
- 65% of teens believed the assassination of MLK was a conspiracy, vs 54% of those over 50
- 11% believed the moon landing was faked, vs 5% of those over 50
- 61% believed there was a cover-up of Waco, vs 44% of those over 45
- 64% of teens believe 9/11 should be reinvestigated, vs 28% of those over 50
- 18% of teens believe the US government allowed 9/11 to happen, vs 9% of those over 46
- 17% of teens the US government sprays sinister chemicals using airplanes, vs 2% of those over 46
Setting aside the validity or silliness of each theory, the real reason behind this discrepancy may actually boil down to awareness. Adults over 25 lived through and remember literally watching airliners fly into the Twin Towers in NYC live in 2001. However, teenagers have learned everything they know about 9/11 either from school or via the Internet.
— Jesse (@VersacePikachu) May 14, 2015
And when it comes to learning about something as complex and world-changing as 9/11, the Internet is one of the worst places to learn about it. The web is rife with terribly researched conspiracy theories, poorly constructed (and often faked) videos and fraudulent “witnesses” making all sorts of claims – all colliding into a swirling concoction of historical reading that leaves most teens wondering what’s real and what’s not.
And it’s everywhere in teenage life. References to conspiracy theory make it into daily communication with friends, and jokes posted on social networks and YouTube. One kid asked his teacher whether “Bush did 9/11” while recording the reaction on video, then posted the teacher’s “pause” to Vine with the title, “HE PAUSED SO HARD OMG BUSH DID IT GUYS I KNEW IT.”
The joke came naturally, because teens read about the conspiracies surrounding 9/11 (and many other topics) on almost a daily basis. You can hardly spend any time on the Internet without reading about it, so this is no surprise.
In other words, for adults, conspiracy theories are a fringe thing that you might find if you bothered to search for it on the Internet. For teenagers, conspiracy theories are a big piece of the Internet, which also makes them just another part of teenage life – mentioned, joked about, and inserted into daily conversations.
Parents Unfriend, Teens Come Unhinged
When I asked my 15 year old daughter if she felt that the Internet and social networks had a big impact on her social status with friends, and her self-image, she answered without hesitation:
To a teen: Social acceptance and approval can be the whole point of living, and since so much of the teenage social life takes place on the Internet, the effect of damaging information on the web can have a much more profound impact on teenagers.
For folks over 35, the effect of someone making fun of you on the Internet may result in the unfriending of that person on Facebook, and potentially a lost friend – but the self-worth of most adults is not so intertwined with their online image.
For teens, on the other hand, it’s an entirely different story. Take, for example, the case of Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri.
She was a beautiful 14-year-old girl who had some pre-existing mental illness, specifically depression and weight-related self-esteem issues.
The story is long and convoluted, but the bottom line is that a girl at school named Sarah Drew wanted to get revenge on Megan for allegedly “spreading gossip” about her. So, with the help of her mother and another 18 year old employee of her mother (what kind of mother does this??), they opened a fake MySpace account with the name “Josh”.
They used “Josh” to lure Megan into providing more details about the alleged gossip, but what eventually happened is that Megan fell in love with “Josh”. Eventually, Ashley Grills, the 18 year old writing most of the “Josh” messages, tried to end the hoax by writing:
“I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends. Everybody in O’Fallon knows who you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”
To make matters worse, many of Megan’s messages were publicly shared with others. Megan’s last response before hanging herself in her bedroom closet was:
“You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.”
This isn’t the first, and it likely won’t be the last case of a teenager ending their life over cyberbullying or Internet harassment.
It’s just one example of how powerful of an influence the Internet has become in the lives of teenagers, and how that influence should never be taken lightly.
Same Internet, Different Experience
Sure, teens and adults share the same space online in many cases. There are also places that teens go, where few adults bother to tread. The online experience is so dramatically different between generations, that it’s very difficult for many adults to really understand how and why the Internet has become such an important part of a teen’s life.
Hopefully, this article has spread some light on the matter – and will help to bridge the divide between parents and teens when it comes to understanding behavior on the Internet.
Do you have teenagers who confuse you when they act a certain way online? Are you a teen who gets frustrated by how clueless your parents are about the Internet and technology? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!