Once upon a time in the late 20th century, teenagers researched homework assignments at a library or with an encyclopedia pulled from the living room book shelf. They communicated privately with friends by stretching the cord of the family telephone into the bathroom. To learn about weekend gossip, they waited for the Monday morning bus ride or lunch in the cafeteria.
Today, teenagers are constantly connected. But is their digital world as harmful as the headlines would suggest?
We talked to four teenagers who say, despite adult concerns, their digital lives aren’t as dangerous or all-consuming as we might think. In fact, because they use it wisely, technology enhances, rather than rules, their lives. Interestingly, each of these teenagers is involved in a variety of offline activities. Could that be the key to fostering digital responsibility among young people?
Alexandria Griffin, 16, is a junior at Lincoln Way North high school in Frankfort, Ill., who likes dancing, reading and hanging out with her friends—in person, not just online. She’s also involved with clubs at school such as Key Club, an international student-led organization that provides service, builds character and develops leadership for its members, Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD ), and Teens Against Tobacco Use (TATU).
Alex Anderson, 17, is a senior at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del. He plays soccer, runs cross-country at school and enjoys a game of hackie sack with his friends. He’s president of the Business Professionals of America, treasurer of the National Honor Society, and loves spending time outside running, biking, and heading north in the winter for snowboarding.
Mikhaila Schweikowsky, 16, is a junior at West Seneca West Senior High School in West Seneca, NY. A swimmer and a soccer player, she’s also a talented singer. She’s in the drama club (where she does lights for school productions), the French Honor Society, and the Crushing Cancer club.
Although these students are extremely busy, they’re still teenagers, and they spend a lot of time online—mostly on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. (Facebook seems to be “out” because apparently too many parents and other adults now use the social network). NEA Today asked them about how they use technology.
What does digital responsibility mean to you?
Alexandria: I think responsible citizens online are those who mostly mind their business, who don’t bully others, or look for any trouble. It’s hard to say how to be responsible online because when you’re online you don’t really think about needing to be responsible. It’s mostly for enjoyment.
Alex: I think it involves actually understanding technology. So many people never take the time to learn how the technology works, such as a website browser. This can lead to using technology incorrectly and potentially putting themselves in harm’s way. Also, there are so many websites on the web with the sole intention of just scamming a person and taking their money. Just because people may have the skill to do this online doesn’t mean that they should. To be a responsible digital citizen, people should be proficient in their technology but not using that knowledge to harm others.
Mikhaila: To be responsible in the digital world means to never post things that you wouldn’t say or show to say your grandmother.
How do you spend your time online?
Alexandria: When I’m not busy with other things, I’m usually on my cell phone online. I mostly talk to my closer friends, but I follow people on Twitter from school or other places. Twitter is definitely the most popular social media website right now. I also use Snapchat a lot. The best part of it is being able to see your friends instantly, just like in a text message. The worst part about it is that whoever you are Snapchatting with can take screen shots of you.
I post all kinds of pictures on Instagram. There are certain theme days on Instagram such as “Wisdom Wednesday,” “Woman Crush Wednesday,” “Transformation Tuesday,” “Throwback Thursday,” “Man Crush Monday” and more.
I have about 20 stations on Pandora. I can listen to most everything. My favorite type of music is pop punk, alternative, and post hardcore. Also I like trap and EDM.
Alex: I’d say the number one site that I visit would be YouTube. As an avid filmmaker I love to check out all of the content my friends and the famous YouTubers put up on a regular basis. I probably spend half an hour to an hour browsing through my subscription list everyday checking all of the new work and watching a couple of pieces. My twin brother Kurt and I run and manage a YouTube Channel called Urhih. We average about 1,000 views on most of our videos. One video got 25,000!
The app that I probably use most would be Twitter. I use it to stay in touch with friends as well as see what the famous filmmakers make and how they’re doing in their lives. Another app that I use frequently would be the fantastical calendar app. This app helps me to keep a schedule in a quick way so that I can schedule my days and not fall behind in any of my work.
To be honest I probably spend over three hours a day at least on the Internet. I use it everywhere from playing an online game, watching a great show on Netflix, or even researching and studying for a test I have coming up the next day. I prefer to use my laptop when I am doing any sort of school work because it is much easier to navigate the web but I prefer to use my iPod to use any sort of social media or quick searches on the Internet.
Mikhaila: I have a very busy life so when I do use the Internet it’s Google for my homework, and Twitter and Instagram just to keep up with what’s going on with my friends. I also love Snapchat. I use it to send hideous faces to my friends when I don’t feel like typing or just to give them a good laugh, but I’m really not online that much—at most 30 minutes a day. I just have no time. But I do use my cell phone a bit more
Have you posted anything anonymously?
Alexandria: I have posted anonymously before. It is just a way to get your feelings out without having to deal with the opinions of your peers.
Some ways we express ourselves is with blogs. Tumblr is the most popular one with people my age. It’s a picture blog, and it isn’t completely anonymous, but you don’t have to disclose who you are. It’s basically a page of everything that is you, and I think it’s helpful because teens can express the things they like. Also, if they’re upset they can look at some other pages and may find a picture that relates to why they’re upset. It makes you feel better that someone else could be going through the same thing.
Alex: I try to avoid posting posts anonymously. I’ve found a growing problem [of kids being] mean over the Internet because their identity is shrouded in mystery. It has created a generation of people who hide on the Internet and don’t realize they’re causing pain to others when they post cruel content.
Mikhalia: I don’t post things anonymously, but a lot of people do. With ask.fm you anonymously send in questions or comments to people. It’s a way for people to say what they really want to say without being punished or judged which now in our society seems to be everyone’s priority.
Although I don’t do it anonymously, I do use technology to vent when I get angry because I have no other way to clearly state how I feel without having someone yell at me, which is very aggravating. Venting on Twitter is sort of a way for people to say how they’re feeling. I vent mostly when I get angry at something that happened that day and instead of yelling I type it out. It helps me feel better getting it off my chest. People shouldn’t take it personally because sometimes the venting isn’t about them.
What do you want adults to know about how you use technology?
Alexandria: I wish educators and parents would understand that not everything that is posted online is serious and should not be taken in a literal manner.
Alex: I want educators to know that the Internet is an amazing tool to help anyone willing to go the distance to basically learn anything. What the educator needs to do is help students learn to evaluate the different viewpoints available. But don’t just use technology for the sake of technology—find a way for it to deepen our understanding of a subject.
Mikhaila: I want them to know that digital life is not my whole life, it’s a very small part of it. We do tend to look at our phones more often than we should. Adults who didn’t have this much technology when they were our age believe our entire lives are spent online, but that’s not the reality.