Growing up, to my once sportsman father’s disappointment, I’d hide in the basement of our family’s home and learn how to use the first computer my parents bought for me one Christmas in the mid-90s. “Go outside and play! Get off the computer!” he’d yell down the stairs at me. I didn’t realize it then, but I was learning how to dance with technologies that would prove to provide a profession for me in adulthood. I didn’t know better, in elementary school, but I was learning and doing my part to shape a part of our culture that would not go away: following and breaking the rules and figuring out what they were as they were established.
At 18, I became member of the second “class” of young people who were eligible to sign up for Facebook accounts in the days that an account required a college student’s .edu email address. Ten years later, my parents would often say, “I’ll never use Facebook! It’s not for me!” But, eventually, they did use it, and now my father shows me things he posts to his account. He tells me about things others post, too, mistaking shared content for personally engineered content, explaining that “your aunt is a really good cook” after noticing her sharing Buzzfeed videos about “meal hacks.”
I’m currently a student in a counseling graduate program. In more than one class, both students and faculty have declared that counseling is an in-person exercise and that it should always be so. But, it can’t be. Counselors have a responsibility to clients, and clients will progressively use more technology to communicate. Younger people imagine that they exist, sometimes in part and sometimes more than in the physical world, in online and digital spaces. Young people aspire to survive from income generated from online activities. They meet and keep their friendships through and entirely on apps. Yet, there are teachers, administrators, and parents who refuse to acknowledge a need that they learn how to participate, too.
Brunette Woman in Red With Girl
Two days ago, 17-year-old Bianca Devins was allegedly attacked and murdered by someone with whom she had interacted socially and possibly romantically on various online and social media platforms. Photos of her body were disseminated on these platforms following her murder. The young woman, who had been referred to by her community as an “e-girl,” lived her life up until the day that she didn’t using internet and smartphone tools and products, and she did so, I imagine, because she was able to establish her identity there: make friends, seek out love, decide who to be and who she wanted to become.
Parents, educators, and communities have a responsibility to maintain safety in the world for young people. So do the companies who sell the products used by young people. Technologies are a part of the psychologies of our younger generations, and if we are going to support children and teenagers in their pursuits of education, their own careers, and the social bringing-to that awaits them, we need to plug ourselves in and learn how it all fits together. Young people may need to play outside a little more, no doubt. But as those in a position to model, restrict, and order the culture to which young people belong, it’s our responsibility to make sure that technological products are not wide-open to being dangerous. We do that, I believe, by making sure that young people know how they should probably be engaging—the same way that we could about a birthday party, or a lunch date—and that requires, first, that we learn how it all works ourselves.
In the technical world, where I exist professionally, we refer to you (who aren’t us) as “users.” You, the parents, and your children: you’re users in the simple lexicon of information technology. You’re a part of a community with shared privileges and responsibilities. We all are. I wonder if the people investigating the murder of Bianca knew what 4chan is, or Discord, or how Instagram works, or how their own families use it. I wonder, too, if the reporters covering this story knew or know still. Or if they’re a part of the “It’s not for me” camp, hoping naively that “playing outside” will roll away the internet. Because a lack of literacy and experience in using, and existing in, social media platforms leaves us on the other side of tragedy, figuring out how even to tell other people what happened.