Canadian Teens: “I’m not the same person on Instagram that I am in real life”

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It’s a changing world out there.

The National Post came out with a new study focusing on the online lives of teen guys in Canada. The study set out to discover what the digital world is like for today’s young men. When I read the article (which is composed 90% of quotes from teenagers), I was not shocked as much as I was saddened. As a youth pastor, I have seen the dark side of the digital revolution in the lives of young people close-up. It’s an ugly thing to behold. But when you listen to teenagers talk so frankly about the strange world that they are growing up in, and all of the ways they interact with it and how it affects them, it really does make your stomach turn.

The following are a few of my reflections on the article. However I would strongly encourage you to read it first—you can do so by clicking HERE.

  1. Online experiences are not all the same. Some of the teens quoted talk about how bullying or sexting dominate their digital lives. Others say they have never experienced either of these phenomenons. The internet seems to open up different worlds to different people. What causes this is not really known. Is it what the individual teens are willing to engage in? Is it the peer group to which they belong? Does their age, race, social status etc. have anything to do with it? It probably is a combination of factors. But one thing is clear: it would be a mistake to assume that one person’s online experience is everyone’s online experience.
  2. Many young people live dual lives. A common thread revealed in the study is that teens live in two worlds: the real one (home, school, sports, work) and the online one. For many, this is more than a different life experience. It is two different lives altogether. A lot of teens admit they are different people in person than they are online. This is concerning on many levels. But adults should be aware that just because a young person exhibits a particular character in person does not necessarily mean that is reflected in their online engagements.
  3. Sex is everywhere. No surprise here: sex dominates the internet. But it’s not just pornography that is out there; much of the sex that teens interact with online comes from people they know. Sending nude pictures (or at least sexually suggestive ones) is shockingly commonplace. One teen quoted in the study talks about getting many different nude pics from girls he knows and almost yawns at it. There’s so much out there that it seems boring. Whether or not teens are intentionally seeking out sexual content or simply stumbling across it, there’s no doubt that the internet and social media are overly-sexualized places.
  4. There’s so much pressure. Teen after teen talk about the pressure that comes in the digital world. Girls are pressured to be sexy. Guys are pressured to be macho. Everyone is pressured to be popular. In short, the social media experience for many teens is not a particularly enjoyable one. It’s actually more like a chore. The need to have a perfected online presence is dominant and leads young people to compromise on their values and stress out to get it.
  5. Fame is where it’s at. Speaking of popularity….social media is built on idea that everyone deserves to have themselves put out there, and the false premise that the world out there actually cares. The craving for likes and retweets becomes possessive for some. And this is starting at a younger and younger age. The Washington Post recently ran an article about the rise of kid bloggers and vloggers that I could barely get through without cringing to death. It’s so sad, but far too many young people build their lives on the approval of people they’ll never even meet.
  6. Teens are aware of the dangers, but often don’t heed them. One teen in the study tells how he started sharing nude pics with someone online who said they were a 16 year-old girl. Yet when he asked for some in return, she found reason after reason to decline. He says that he started to suspect that this person could be a 40 year-old man for all he knows….yet he still sends nude pictures to people online. This is just one head-scratching example of how young people are aware of the dangers of the internet, yet still use it in unsafe ways.
  7. Parents need to know what’s up. If there is any takeaway from this piece for those of us with young people in our care, it’s that we need to know what is going on in the digital lives of the teens that we care for. Not that we need to be a part of every single detail—to do so is virtually impossible—but we need to create ways to keep healthy dialogue open and aim to set good boundaries. This is easier said than done, but it is simply too important for us to ignore.

The world is an ugly place. Many teens are encountering it at a life-stage where they simply lack the maturity, wisdom, and self-confidence to make good decisions. The internet and social media has caused the veil to be lifted on the more perverse and debased sides of humanity, and literally millions of young people are being invited into this world and swept up in it. There’s probably not a lot we can do on a global scale to stop this, but there are little things we can do on a smaller scale. We can love teens. We can give them attention. We can affirm their admirable qualities. We can help them develop as human beings. We can provide healthy outlets for creativity and invention. We can make their real lives so fulfilling that their online one doesn’t dominate them. If we each do our part, we may not be able to change the world for everyone, but perhaps we can change the world for someone. And that is worth fighting for.

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