Babes in the Woods

Anybody could be tracking your children online. Even me.

Just how dangerous is the unsupervised use of the Internet by adolescents? Nobody knows. I suspect that in a decade or so we’ll all have a very different set of beliefs about how and when and for what purposes teenagers should be allowed to go online. When something new comes along, it takes a while for parents to sort out what’s safe and what isn’t, and even longer for their conclusions to become commonly held assumptions about good parenting. In the future it may be unheard-of for a teenage girl from a loving family to disappear into her room every night for two hours of unsupervised e-chatting and instant messaging and MySpacing. Then again, it may be even more common than it is today. All we know for sure is that our children are living in the midst of a technological revolution, and that they’re drawn to it like moths to a flame.

Most parents of teenage girls with Internet connections will tell you that their daughters’ physical safety isn’t in jeopardy—they’ve taken all kinds of precautions they think ensure this—but that the online experience is doing nothing for the girls’ peace of mind. Not many people are as ill-served by having their natterings subjected to instantaneous, global transmission as adolescent girls. In the first place, these girls’ feelings can be hurt by even a well-intentioned comment or question, and having a caustic remark that would have been bad enough if kept between two people suddenly unleashed to the whole clique, team, or school can be a wretched experience. Furthermore, because this new technology can make the old girl standbys of gossip and social exclusion and taunting more efficient—and therefore more cruel—many girls arrive at school each morning having experienced the equivalent of a public hazing in the privacy of their own rooms. While Johnny’s upstairs happily sneaking hard-core pornography past his Internet filter, poor Judy is next door weeping into her pillow because everyone in the eighth grade now knows that she still uses pads, not tampons. (Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Mom and Dad are trying to figure out how to watch Dancing With the Stars now that the remote’s on the fritz again.)

If you have an adolescent and you’re clueless about the “social networking” sites they love, it’s probably a good idea to pick up a copy of a first-rate new guidebook, Generation MySpace, by Candice M. Kelsey, a teacher at a private high school in Los Angeles. She’s the kind of super-pretty, nonjudgmental young adult kids adore, and seems to have a sensible grasp of both the fears of parents and the desires of teenagers. She’s also particularly perceptive about why MySpace can cause a teenage girl so much pain. As she began to understand the site’s increasing hold on her students, she writes,

fewer and fewer days would go by that didn’t end with a distraught student sitting on the floor of my office in search of advice about how to respond to various MySpace-related dilemmas.

Kelsey describes an experiment she conducts each year in which kids are asked not to log on for an entire week. Many of them can’t hack it, but the ones who do often find themselves happier and calmer.

Some of the most harmless aspects of MySpace would have crushed me at 14. Members get to list their “Top 8” friends, a list they can change at whim. It’s an ingenious number, because it’s just large enough to make exclusion really hurt—eight people, and there wasn’t any room at all for me?

One of the great paradoxes of our age is that at the exact moment when a huge number of teachers, parents, and school administrators have dedicated themselves to the emotional well-being and self-confidence of adolescent girls, a technology has come along that’s virtually guaranteed to undermine that confidence. A girl can go to school and happily discover that it’s possible for her to become a scientist when she grows up, but that may be cold comfort when she comes home to discover that five people just dropped her from their Top 8.

The primary engine of MySpace’s stupendous growth isn’t the Internet or the additional opportunities for cattiness it provides, but the fathomless narcissism of the young. There’s no more ardent devotee of a MySpace profile than its creator, lovingly adjusting the lighting on the perfect self-portrait, changing the song that serenades it, the graphics that surround it. The page can speak broadly to others, but others are almost beside the point; every profile is a sonnet to the self. Today’s girls spend hours looking at their MySpace profiles, fiddling and tinkering with them—much as I once sat in front of my vanity mirror, holding my hair up and letting it fall, smiling one way and then the other. For girls, the powerful need to be alone in their bedrooms—dreaming, writing in diaries, looking at themselves in the mirror—is married to a kind of exhibitionism. Why was I trying out my hair so many different ways, if not to calculate its potential effect on others? The Internet makes it possible to combine these two opposed desires: to be alone trying something out and to be exposed in public for everyone to see. A decade from now, a large group of parents may be telling anyone who will listen that this is a very dangerous combination indeed.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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