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.
Last year, all of a sudden, the phrase Club Penguin entered my house via my 8-year-old twin sons, and they were so completely immersed in recounting to me its endless complexities that there was no way to slow them down and elicit a concise definition. I did grasp that it was on the Internet and that it was “safe”—they kept repeating this to me, as though somehow they’d absorbed (accurately) that it was an essential part of the incantation that gets a mother to allow you to do something online. So one day, with me sitting beside them and feeling as though I were summoning Beelzebub, they logged on and played for a while—their first Internet gaming experience.