Living Publicly as a Teenager Online

Real talk: Somewhere on the internet, under my real name, is part of a The X-Files fan fiction story I wrote many years ago as a bored, horny teen. It was the mid-1990s, the early days of the internet, computer storage was expensive, and in order to read my story, you needed to have been a member of a niche slash fan-fiction group who happened to download new posts that week, and bothered to click on mine. It was all so ephemeral – my story, the newsgroup it was posted in, the server it was hosted on, even the whole internet for all we knew.

In other words, talk was cheap. My story was intended for a limited audience and we were all sure it would always stay that way. As it turns out, we were hilariously wrong.

Around the turn of the century, the cost of storage halved and halved again a dozen times and interest grew in what is now known as the pioneering days of the internet. Some well-meaning digital archivist decided our newsgroup server and everything on it – including part of my trashy Mulder/Krycek elevator romance – was recorded for posterity. Today, as I was reading about the teen who tweeted from her smart fridge after her mom confiscated her devices, I was thinking about what it was like living publicly on the web as a teen then, and what it would be like now.

In the first decade of the new century, there was a lot of public nailbiting about young people revealing too much of themselves online. As social networks like Facebook allowed teens to live their lives out loud, parents and especially teachers were hysterical about how young people would all learn to regret the things they were saying. They were sure that the things said in youthful folly would one day come back to bite young people in job interviews and relationships. To a certain degree, they were right. But they didn’t count on the ingenuity and tenacity of teens, who recognized, demanded, and won huge privacy battles in their social networks. Being digital natives, teens are also much more likely to know and care about their online privacy and to self-censor than their hand-wringing elders.

Then there’s the time issue. Some 65% of parents say their teen spends too much time in front of screens, 57% limit their screen time and 57% also remove their child’s cell phone or internet privileges as punishment. Interestingly, when Pew asked those same parents about their own use, 36% admitted they spent too much time on their phones and 39% said they had lost focus at work because of it. So maybe the screen ban should start in their own damn pockets.

As our fridge-tweeter Dorothy showed us, losing your phone is anxiety-producing. Some 42% say they feel anxious without their phones, and a further quarter feels lonely or upset. With new research suggesting the parents of younger children are going about regulating screen time entirely the wrong way, parents of teens may want to reconsider whether forcing their kids to tweet from the fridge is really the right move.

Main image: Andray, Creative Commons.