"Growing Up Online"
Watching Growing Up Online was like seeing many of the words and stories in my book, Totally Wired: What teens and tweens are really doing online, come to life on TV. In the spirit of full disclosure, the producers interviewed me as part of their pre-production research, and I allowed them to film at my conference focusing on youth and technology in San Francisco (I'm pretty sure that's where they shot the interview with researcher danah boyd).
Having spent the last three years writing and promoting my book and speaking to numerous teens, parents and educators around the country about growing up "totally wired," nothing in the documentary surprised me. Still, I worry that by focusing so much of the program on the story of a bullied teen who committed suicide after finding a likeminded friend online, a teen girl active on pro-anorexia websites, another teen girl who posted "Suicide Girl"-like modeling shots on MySpace, and videos of teens fighting or drinking on MySpace and Facebook, we continue to get a fairly sensational portrait of growing up online.
The challenge with only having an hour to explore such complex issues is that it's not long enough. The producers took their most dramatic and compelling subjects and spent a decent chunk of time with each of them. That said, I loved Jessica's story about a shy, awkward girl who reinvents herself online - if only because it ended with her parents realizing what an outlet the internet is for someone like her, someone who may not fit into the rigid social hierarchy of high school. I often get asked whether I think technology is replacing or diminishing real face-to-face intimacy. The truth is that being "real" in person is very hard for a lot of teens. Jessica was only able to be "real" through an alter ego called "Autumn Edows" - a virtual personae strangers adored while in real life, i.e. at high school, "Jessica," who looks just like "Autumn," suffered. I also thought Sarah, the teen hiding her eating disorder, saying that she felt she could only be her true self online (connecting to other girls seeking "thinspiration,") spoke to her struggle to maintain a happy-go-lucky facade with her friends and parents in "the real world."
After the very sad story of the bullied teen who committed suicide, the narrator did remind us that most teens who are bullied don't kill themselves. While cyberbullying is a major issue, and there are definitely some severe and heartbreaking cases, many teens who experience harassment or bullying online tend to block, ignore, delete or tell off the person harassing them - then they move on. The documentary was actually more balanced when it came to the predator issue contrasting the actual number of abductions with the relentless media coverage, showing how fearful the "Dr. Phil" mom was of stranger danger and the tiny chance that one of her teens would be stalked by someone who just saw their photo online, the online safety expert yelling at parents to manage their kids' internet use (which the Dr. Phil mom translated as insisting on her teens' Facebook passwords), danah boyd talking about who is really at-risk for meeting strangers (teens who are at-risk offline, too) and the teens themselves saying they just ignore predators.
What I felt was missing from the documentary were the teens who are close to their parents and share pieces of their online lives with them, whether it's what they write on their blog or even playing a video game together. I wanted to see more reporting on what's happening with technology in schools to put the two teachers at the New Jersey high school in a more macro context as well as more on how the internet has opened up new educational opportunities (beyond just cheating with Sparknotes). I also wanted to see some positive examples of how teens are using the internet to create social change, show off their creativity or launch their own businesses. Missing, too, was how teens can also find healthy support and resources online - not just pro-ana or pro-suicide sites.
What Growing Up Online does offer parents, teachers and teenagers is a jumping off point to discuss some of these important issues together. Jessica's story is perfect for talking about managing your online identity - who you are at school vs. at home vs. at work vs. online vs. with a particular group of friends. It's also a nice opening to discuss the kind of attention girls tend to get when they post provocative photos (even the artsy variety) and the kind of trouble they can get into (when another parent finds them and tells the principal). Ryan's story should inspire discussion about bullying - online and off, and how important it is for kids to be able to continue to talk to their parents about what's happening. The story about the girls' MySpace war that escalated into a brawl at school is a starting point for discussing how it's easier to say meaner stuff online. And the cautionary tail of the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) mom and the NYC train party photos on Facebook should provide fodder for a discussion around the public nature of the internet and whether or not parents have a right to see their teen's profile.
As Ryan's father so thoughtfully said, the internet did not make his son commit suicide, but it does magnify and amplify these very human impulses. This program succeeds at putting real faces on the sensational headlines we read about this generation growing up online.