Dangerous Venues for Youth?July 5th, 2009 at 8:58
It seems that since I was a kid, American public spaces have become, or at least believed by many parents to have become, dangerous venues for our youth. When I was a youth in my Midwestern college town, I could hop on my bike after school or on the weekend and go where I wished – the playground, the library, the toy store, a friend’s house – and my parents were okay with that. Thirty years later my kids never went any of these places without me or their mom coming along, functioning as security and transportation-captain, and making the excursion more of a planned logistical event than it ever was when I was a kid.
Small wonder my kids ended up spending most of their free time indoors and quickly discovered that the family computer (and later their own computers), equipped with Internet access and a web browser, was a portal to a virtual world of playgrounds, libraries, toy stores and friend’s houses of sorts. Then with all the news stories about predatory adults in chat rooms and easy access to pornography and such, parents began to perceive that their kids were not even safe ensconced in their “wired” homes.
We continue to hear stories about kids who are harassed on social networking sites to the point of committing suicide, and opinion-makers in the media and parents at parties continue to disseminate the thought that many of our kids are addicted to the Internet, and as a result have fewer friends, more suicides, more drug use and anti-social behavior.
It seems to me kids may have fewer friends because they have so much less unstructured time in the playgrounds, parks, youth community centers, or even streets, to interact casually with other youth and make acquaintances. And also so much more time is dedicated to self-focused high-stakes schooling, with its hours of homework every night and studying for high-stakes tests.
As to teen suicides, drug abuse and anti-social behavior, there are all kinds of trends in our contemporary society that I would imagine contribute to this, and have nothing to do with the Internet.
* The pressure of ever more high-stakes schooling
* Increasing materialism combined with more low-wage jobs that keep more parents away at work and not participating in family life with their kids
* Suburban sprawl of non-neighborhoods with no community space where youth can hang out and adults can interact with and informally mentor youth
Again from my anecdotal experience with that slice of youth that I interact with, there use of the Internet is a mitigating force to attempt to overcome disconnection and alienation. Maybe the youth that I deal with are exceptional, but from where I am viewing things, they seem to be using this electronic media effectively to their own benefit.
I find it interesting that some anthropologists speculate that the first use of fire was as an intoxicant. People just sat around this new thing and stared at the flames, putting them into a trance. Later, the theory goes, they developed more practical applications like staying warm and cooking.
I think the world has always been full of compelling things that entrance you, and become vices when partaken of in excess. There are also other sports and spectacles of a violent nature that can capture our fascination.
I have read about the history of colonial America, where a major issue was the time people spent in taverns, brothels, and participating in violent sports like cock fighting, fox hunting, bull baiting and bear baiting. Also hangings were public events, surely attracting a number of voyeuristic onlookers. Public humiliation of various criminals and violators of strict moral codes was also big.
Alcohol, tobacco, promiscuous sex, humiliation and games and spectacles involving extreme violence against animals and people have always been draws to youth and adults in every age. This is heritage of a patriarchal culture that we carry with us into modern times.
So a number of youth today still have promiscuous sex and abuse alcohol and other drugs. There are still violent sports, such as football and boxing, which attract many hours of some youth’s time. Gone for most youth in America are the cock fights, fox hunts, bull and bear baiting and public hangings and lynchings. Replacing them in some way perhaps are the violent video games (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) and movies. In my way of seeing it, our male youth in particular, are playing out the ongoing violent fantasies of a 5000-year-old patriarchal culture, but in a contemporary idiom.
From my experience working with youth, the key is to engage them in discussion about our culture and the current crop of addictive and self-destructive pastimes. Through those discussions both youth and adult gain more understanding of these things, share frustrations and compulsions, and through that process better moderate their behavior.
I still believe my mom was right when she said, “kids will tell you what they need”, including needing to be listened to without being judged, or maybe to be able to spend an evening vegetating in front of a PlayStation or Nintendo to relax their jangled nerves. But given that, I still should share with youth as much real-life wisdom as I can convey and they can digest. I should share the truth as I understand it about addiction, vice and violence with any youth willing to listen. Then given that hearing, trust them to make their own decisions, right or wrong in my opinion.
For better or worse, I believe the internet is becoming a significant tool, perhaps the most significant tool, for our younger generation to build and maintain community. Talk to any internet-savvy member of this demographic that you know, I’m sure they can tell you better than I what a new world it is out there, brave or otherwise.
My thought is that if you help youth learn to be very savvy consumers of electronic media they can use it to become pretty sophisticated pretty quickly. Yes they are powerful techniques that can be intoxicating like drugs. But then shamans use mind-altering drugs to help themselves and others have transformative experiences. I think our electronic media, when used with wisdom, are a powerful transformative tool.
It has certainly transformed and reoriented my own life and given me a venue and an audience to share these thoughts.