Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Teens and the web

Catholic Herald 24 February 2006

Children are learning social skills via the internet? Teenagers whose days are spent bathed in a cold blue glow are learning to “make friends and form new relationships”? My scepticism programming went into action as soon as I read this in The Times.

And sure enough, the claim was made on behalf of a study of a teenagers’ chat room website which is owned by News International, the organisation which also owns…The Times.

On the other hand, according to a report by the London School of Economics, which as far as I know is not yet owned by News International, the explosion of internet use by teenagers is almost replacing face-to-face social contact. Youngsters prefer talking via mobile phone or MSN (instant messaging) to actually… talking.

And although most of them communicate largely with local friends, they all nearly all have “internet friends” they know nothing about – and over 40 percent admit to lying about themselves on the internet.

It was so different in my day. Social contact for me meant the ritual of the Home Counties teenagers’ party. Long before the internet, mothers had access to a virtual, unwritten list of all the “nice” young people in the area. “Nice” meant that you went to boarding school, your Daddy worked in the City and your home had a large lawn and probably an inglenook fireplace, maybe a Labrador or two. Or, at least it meant you could pass for such.

Thus nailed, you were herded into a barn full of flashing lights and 50 others gathered in tight, unyielding groups of strangers who all knew each other (they shared dorms) and, unlike you, were in jeans. (That floor length tartan taffeta dress looked so sweet in the mirror at home.)

Somehow, despite having a small lawn, no Labrador and being at day schools, my brother and I were sucked into this list and found ourselves being invited to parties in muddy barns on the far side of Hertfordshire, hosted by teenagers we’d never met, of whose parents our own parents knew nothing.

Not surprisingly, we found ourselves rubbing shoulders with some fairly odd people. Every party seemed to have, unbeknown to the hosts, its resident drug dealer and serial adulterer-in-training, slouched, glowering and unapproachable (at least to my unsophisticated grammar school girl’s eyes) beside the mobile disco. Essex not being far away, rumours would flutter around as to how so-and-so’s Daddy had made all his money.

The parents usually made sure there was a quieter room where we could have “conversation”. Conversation? As long as the lights were on, we were tongue-tied, reduced to asking each other what O-levels we were taking. The boys, accustomed to girls being glimpsed only through barbed-wire fences, regarded us as hostile aliens. A virulent mixture of fear and contempt set their hairless faces into a mask of indifference, punctuated by the occasional catty remark.

Our parents thought they were “shy”. We knew better, especially when the lights went off. The only worthwhile thing ever to come out of these horrible parties was the occasional exchanging of addresses with some less threatening youth, and the glorious anticipation of – oh joy! – an actual letter in the post.

And so I salute today’s teens for avoiding the cattle-market, and concentrating on the writing of letters. Endless letters. Often secret, often indiscreet, many-coloured and adorned with animated “smileys” and mottos. It’s an MSN world.

So they make up facts about themselves? How many kids at those parties I endured laid claim to social pretensions they did not have?

So today’s teens meet people their parents have not vetted? Who vetted the guest lists of the houses at whose doors my parents would trustingly deposit me at 8pm?

Many admirable new initiatives aimed at young people are entirely internet-based – the World Youth Alliance, which lobbies the UN in the name of “dignity of the human person, solidarity between the developed and developing worlds and the culture of life” would not have grown except by email. I would love to see an internet chat room for Catholic teens, though it would probably be impossible to police.

We have to be able to trust our teenagers, now as then. Catholics have the great advantage of a clear moral system – children brought up within that system should be easier to trust than others, though we rarely see it that way. Whether subjected to trial by disco or trial by chat room, they still need that system to fall back on to help them say “no” to the wrong things and “yes” to the right things. Wherever they are.