Where would you go for community if it felt like you had none? How might you express yourself if you had no limits? And with whom would you share your inner world if anonymity reigned free? For many teens, online community offers the love, acceptance, and affirmation that in-person contact denies. Yet, when digital hubs serve as the catch-all for feelings of pain, rejection, and distress, how do you show up to support in real time? If you have ever wondered how do you “meet” teens beyond the screen, you are knot alone.
iVulnerable: Online Anonymity and Emotional Intimacy
The internet has gifted us with an incredible opportunity to connect and share in limitless ways, particularly for those who experience challenge with face-to-face contact. Vulnerability thrives through online anonymity, with emotional exchange nurtured from behind the hazy glow of a backlit screen. Information is within reach of the teens you care about. Great, for an assignment on Shakespeare, but what happens when a curious kid feels unheard and looks inside to an unknown, online source for answers to life’s struggles?
iBully: Searching Online to Escape the Hurt
I remember all too well the advent of the internet. As a young child, Windows 95 provided one of the first real opportunities I had to look outside of the school yard and into the open pastures of lands and lives far away. Like many kids in school, I was exposed to judgmental attitudes, mean pranks, and times of loneliness. Turning inward and online, I easily found access to an online forum of teens openly sharing about fear, sadness, and self-harm.
“No one likes me - I have no friends.”
“My parents are always fighting.”
“I’m not good enough.”
Reading post after post of young kids in challenging situations introduced me to the concept of self-harm and thoughts of suicide for the first time. Curious to learn more, I posted:
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in, and I think about dying. What advice do you have?”
Message sent, I logged off and thought nothing more of it...until later that night. I was called into the kitchen and saw something unrecognizable on my parent’s faces: fear. Somehow my message had bounced and emailed right back to the family email account. While the details remain fuzzy, I remember the conversation was long and the concern was real.
Where Teens Go For Online Community
Most teens, I know have a phone, access to a laptop, tablet, or home computer, and self-manage anywhere from 6-10 social media sites, live apps, and web communities. Meeting in-real-life (IRL) has taken a back seat to a digital driver, and you may feel at a loss for how to connect, monitor, and engage with your teen’s online use.
As both an educator and a counsellor, I have been curious about where teens go for online community and information. The results look different depending on what any given teen needs, though there are some common threads:
Tumblr: A micro-blog, where teens can post photos and texts to the internet in seconds. Offers a space to follow the journeys of communities with shared experience.
Snapchat: Picture and video messaging mobile app designed to capture and share a moment instantly with friends and family. Messages last from 1-10 seconds.
Instagram: The Facebook-owned and operated photo and video sharing platform. Offers features similar to Snapchat with some tighter privacy features.
Youtube: One of the world’s most popular, user-curated, video sharing resources. Channels and YouTube stars offer up tips on every topic imaginable.
The 4 sites listed above only cover a small percentage of the available content online. If you have a teen in your life, I encourage you to check out the links and articles provided above to see what teens are talking about. Where is the information coming from? Is it balanced? How do teens learn to decide which source to trust? Parents and caregivers play a key role in this learning process.
Sex, Drugs, and Online Roles
Online portals and chat rooms offer teens endless opportunities to explore “self”: how do people see me? What communities do I belong to? How do I want to identify? For youth raised in settings where public institutions and societal views remain fairly sex conservative & substance negative, the internet provides endless opportunities to explore sex, relationships and how drugs work in the body. When schools are shy to talk, teens will go elsewhere to learn. In my practice, families often ask, “Where does my trans* and gender expressive teen go first for information and community?”
Anecdotally, online forums and social media sites (e.g. Youtube, Reddit) are the first and most used information resources for trans* and gender expressive teens. Connecting virtually, and at a distance facilitates an environment for teens exploring their sexual and relational selves to be validated and affirmed. Feel welcome to explore the outpouring of courage, vulnerability, and shared experience at DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/tag/dysphoria
Parent Participation: Bringing In-Person Conversation Online
With all the perils and pitfalls tied to the digital world, it can be easy to forget that online tools and media play an important role in teen social development. Forums, chatrooms, and video games can allow for a positive extension of a teen’s “real world” social life. Whether on a break, or in transit, conversations can be kept alive and community connections strengthened. What can parents, caregivers, and educators do to separate the useful content from the damaging?
Keep communication lines open with your teen
Include your teen in a social media and online action plan
Talk transparently around privacy & sharing (see links included above)
Engage conversation and posting and social reputation - how does your teen want to be seen?
It is vital that you are available to intervene when you notice a teen you care about is struggling. Waiting for a relaxed moment and compassionately inquiring - “Hey, I noticed that you looked upset when you logged off...is everything ok?” - can make a powerful difference in starting a life changing conversation. Facebook offers a comprehensive guide for conversation starters listed here: https://www.facebook.com/safety/bullying/parents/take_action/.
If you are feeling stuck, know that there are resources to help you. If you have any questions or require additional support, please do not hesitate to get in touch.