We are both afraid of and afraid for teenagers. We fear the trouble that they’ll get into and the people who will hurt them. This fear shapes our parenting, our educational structures, and our public policy. Old anxieties about public parks and malls have become modernized as the mere mention of teens’ engagement with technology prompts heart palpitations. Yet where does this fear get us?
For the last decade, I’ve studied how and why teenagers use social media. I’ve driven around the country talking to youth and observing their online activities, listening to them as they struggle to understand what keeps their parents up at night. Meanwhile, I’ve watched as news organizations have breathlessly promoted fearful messages about the dangers of the Internet, often ignoring data that show otherwise. It is only natural — and also crucial to our societal well-being — for parents to want to protect their children. And yet that protective instinct can go too far.
Maturation is a process. Teens do not wake up on their 18th birthday and suddenly understand how the world works, even if legally they are adults. They can’t acquire empathetic sensibilities by sitting in a bubble. They must interact with others and take part in public life to develop an appreciation for society and their role in it. As parents, it is our responsibility to be there for them, to serve as role models and guides, to pick them up when they fall down, and to encourage them to take some risks while discouraging others. No matter how much we miss the snuggling days, we need to encourage our children to become independent, thoughtful, curious people. Social media and the Internet have become an important part of that process.
Perhaps the most widespread fear about the Internet concerns the fear of strangers. In the mid-2000s, this manifested as a moral panic about online sexual predators. Parents imagined that their children would be arbitrarily abducted because of their online activities. The data painted an entirely different portrait.
The researcher David Finkelhor and his team at the Crimes Against Children Research Center produced a powerful report discussing online sexual solicitations. They found that 1 in 7 young people were sexually solicited online, a number misinterpreted by the media and activists to suggest that predators are lurking everywhere. Few read the report, which noted that nearly all of the sexual solicitations were by teens’ peers and other young adults. Contradicting popular assumptions, most teens didn’t even find these encounters upsetting.
When Finkelhor’s team looked more narrowly at sexual crimes involving the Internet, they saw that problems occurred when teens portrayed themselves as older, talked about sex to strangers online, and repeatedly met up with those individuals knowing sex was the intended outcome.
These teens — many of whom were from abusive households, struggling with mental health issues, or battling addiction — were indeed victimized, but the interventions needed to help them weren’t about the Internet. To the contrary, the Internet made visible the countless number of at-risk youth who are deeply vulnerable. Rather than being helped by our societal obsession with sexual predation, these teens — and their cries for help — were ignored.
As parents, educators, and the media fret about the lurking online sexual predator, they brush over the acts of violence that youth regularly experience in other settings. Our society doesn’t help youth develop strategies to deal with peer violence, even though teens are more likely to be raped by classmates than by strangers. Rather than increasing available social services, we keep defunding programs that can help youth who are abused by relatives.
Furthermore, policy makers keep proposing laws to block teens from accessing the Internet because of the potential risks associated with strangers. Yet, I cannot imagine our country implementing laws that would ban teens from school or religious institutions, even though sexual victimization is far more likely to occur in these places.
Parents have every right to be afraid of horrifying outcomes, even those that are quite rare. I can’t blame them for wanting to do whatever it takes to protect their child from sexual victimization. But when we go to extremes to protect youth, we rarely consider the unintended consequences of isolating teens from all strangers.
Across this country, I met teens who refused to interact with strangers online because they might be harmful. Over and over again, they referenced parental concerns and TV shows like “To Catch a Predator.” These teens didn’t have a personal experience with such horrors, but they were convinced that they were at-risk. At times, these fears boiled over into other contexts, with teens not wanting to interact with any adults — and, notably, adult males — for fear that they might hurt them. This included teachers, counselors, coaches, grocery store clerks, and police officers.
Interacting with strangers is extraordinarily valuable. Through encounters with new people, we expand our scope of the world around us. We learn to respect differences and develop empathy. Strangers teach us new ideas and skills. And, most importantly, building new connections allows us to knit together the fabric of our society, a crucial practice for addressing global issues.
Today’s teenagers have learned to be afraid of strangers. Many of those who go off to college don’t want to have roommates who come from different cultural backgrounds. Youth who are battling mental health issues are often not willing to reach out to strangers, even when they’re in a crisis. Young people are often uncomfortable even making small talk with people they don’t know. Is this really what we want for our children?
In America today, it’s often easier to go to extremes than to find balance. Wanting to protect youth is commendable, but we must also offer them freedom to explore and take risks. As parents, we need to focus on preventing the broken bones and not get caught up trying to stop every bump and scratch along the way. This starts by actively and conscientiously not allowing fear to get the best of us.