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The A to Z's of Teenagers: I Is for Internet

At my daughter Lizzie’s age, I was immersed in virtual worlds—spending most of my time alone in my room, shunning my parents, saying no to any family activity I could get away with saying no to and, need I add, making my parents pay dearly for forcing me to participate in the ones I couldn’t weasel or whine my way out of. These other realities I inhabited, these virtual worlds, were far more interesting, more exciting, and more involving than my own boring suburban teen reality. I fell into these worlds, lost myself in these worlds, imagined myself as part of these worlds.

That is, I read.

Yes, I hail from the land of analog. I was a teen circa B.I. (before Internet). My kids, however, are natives of a different land. Digital natives.

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My born digital teen daughter immerses herself in other realities. She travels backward and forward in time, from medieval fiefdoms to distant planets, from Egyptian tombs to post-apocalyptic robot worlds. She explores deserts and forests, trudges through snow, drives an armored vehicle, wields a sword. Her alternate worlds stream into our house via the Internet. Mine arrived courtesy of the public library.

I think that the overlay of technology is so thick in our culture; the change from before to after Internet is so dramatic, so pervasive, so seemingly, utterly complete, that for a while I lost sight of how much the same my teen years had been compared to my daughter’s. For awhile I thought the digital divide was an unbridgeable chasm that would forever separate us, would always make her unknowable in some basic way. Sure, now, as an adult, I text and tweet, blog and pin, Facebook and Instagram. I stream video into my home. My music is a playlist on my smartphone. I competently navigate the digital landscape every day. But I am not a native. This is a terrain I had to learn. It is my second language. My first language was books and vinyl albums and phones that just made phone calls.

I realized we were spending our teen years doing essentially the same things (but differently).

But then I started thinking about the parallels: In the land before Internet I hadn’t texted my friends in class, but we passed notes. It accomplished the same purpose and engendered the same reaction from teachers. I hadn’t posted updates, but I had updated for hours every night on the phone. I didn’t depend on YouTube to deliver clips of people doing stupid things, but I saw plenty of people doing stupid things when I watched America’s Funniest Home Videos on TV. I hadn’t lost myself in online games. But I did lose myself in the worlds I found in books.

I realized we were spending our teen years doing essentially the same things (but differently) and—here was my a-ha moment—doing them for the same reasons: the compulsion to communicate (except with parents). The need to figure out who we were. The push-pull between belonging and standing out. The desire to be anywhere other than where we are. The adventuring spirit. The impatience for life to begin.

So we did grow up in different lands. And we did grow up speaking different languages. But the experience of being or having once been a teen—the core coming-of-age issues, the tumult, the confusion, the excitement, the pain—means we hold the same passport.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

I got my first email address in 3rd grade. Not like I actually emailed anyone back then. I was still talking to people on the playground and, besides, I hardly knew how to type. But you needed an email account to do anything. Like MySpace. I created my MySpace page in 4th grade, fibbing a little (OK, a lot) about my age. I spent many happy hours pimping my page, choosing a music track, wallpaper, photos that popped up and moved and other useless stuff that was supposed to tell the (online) world who I was. Then I got into IMVU, a social networking, instant chat space where you have an avatar that can meet other avatars. It’s like the PG version of Second Life. That lasted for maybe a year. Now I’m on the Internet to check email and Facebook and YouTube and craigslist, and to look at the newest hair fashions. I buy music online. I stream movies and TV shows. And I play on X-Box Live.

Why do I spend so much time on the Internet? It’s pretty much necessary to my life. Facebook keeps me up-to-date with people who are not really my friends (I text with actual friends or hang out with them in real life). I need email for school and job hunting. It’s impossible to do either without going online. Streaming movies is cheap entertainment (yay!) and playing on X-Box is how me and my boyfriend bond. The games immerse you in another reality and, I’ll tell you the truth, they’re addictive.

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Here’s what I have to say to moms with teens who seem to be spending a lot of time on the computer. The computer is not the problem! It’s that tiny portable computer in their back pocket that’s the problem. You know—the smartphone. I’ve noticed that teens spend more time on the Internet on their smart phones than they do socializing. I mean even when they are in a group that is socializing. So you’re trying to have a conversation and they’re Facebooking and Googling and Instagramming and Spotifying and doing everything other than looking you in the eye and talking to you. I’m betting this happens at the dinner table, too, right?

And, by the way, how much time did YOU just spend online reading this?

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