Life online in the late-nineteen-nineties was fluid.  I could be anyone, I could talk to anyone, argue any point of view. They called it the “information superhighway” then and I was working with ‘street kids’. My frustration as a youth worker then was that the only people youth seemed to meet online were predators or or pedophiles. The people who care most about youth where NOT the early adopters of the Internet. In the beginning my fellow human service workers didn’t see being online as “real” communication or connection with another person. I remember a meeting where I was advocating for the use of email to exchange files of missing children to other B.C. communities and there was actual laughter in the air as they moved the meeting on to more ‘realist’ options for cross-community collaboration. They didn’t see how it was going to have an effect on the future work. Honestly, It was hard for any of us to imagine how it was going to change identity, community, or society. Given a choice, sadly, most adults default to what they know and not the new and latest thing.

Fifteen years later here we are. There are new terms for suicides that involve technology use and there are calls for new laws to address some alarming youth behaviour online. Schools and families alike are scrambling to address the new challenges posed by the combination of sex, teens and technology.

And we are misdirected. What we as parents, citizens and professionals are missing by focusing on what children shouldn’t do, is what we can do. I believe that focusing on laws, punishment and restricting young people’s access online are solutions to a vast minority of cases. While the knee jerk response might be to enact new legislation, new investigative powers by law enforcement, new ‘task forces’, I defy anyone to point to an example of where creating a law stopped crime from occurring. Deterrents do not work! Retribution afterwards and maybe some support for victims of these crimes is a small step to evolving respectful online spaces for children and youth online.

There are more of us in the world now, communicating more intimately than ever before. For young people this means easier access to peers and more ability to experiment with communication. Teens are wired to experiment with communication, sexuality and peer group formation. Parents and communities need to give youth the tools to resolve conflicts, to communicate respectfully and to develop healthy sexuality not how to lay charges or gather evidence. Yes horrible things happened to innocent people.Yes we need to talk about these, increase youth’s resilience to resist involvement in potentially harmful spaces online and hold malicious attackers to count,  but more important I believe, is for us to learn how to use the technology and teach our children and youth how to use it.

We have a lot of catching up to do.

We can mitigate some of the exaggerating effects of technology on communication. I believe there will be new tools and approaches that will give us ways to let our children and youth online without exposure to the more extreme situations we are seeing now. (‘bullying’ identifying software for chat sites, time restricted routers, and device modifications for age-appropriate access) Many contemporary researchers are beginning to give us a better understanding of the way i-devices are influencing children’s emotional, societal and sexual development. This research will contribute to more effective ways of educating youth about online effects as well as remedying some of the damage done to current youth populations.

We need to model good online and offline behaviour and build their capacity to feel empathy and compassion, both for themselves and for others. We need to nurture a sense of belonging.  We need to have values-based conversations with young people about their online conduct. We need to give them compassion-focused tools to resolve conflict honourably  We need to give them the space to educate us and themselves through this ever changing info-landscape.

I don’t think adolescent development has changed in the last 30 years, nor do i think that the basic parenting principles of nurturing, guidance, boundaries and love have changed. But the world around us has and only by adapting, and adapting quickly and inclusively, and educating ourselves and the children and youth we care about and serve will we be able integrate online communications into the common culture and society in meaningful and productive ways.

by Merlyn Horton, Executive Director