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The New Generation Gap: Required Reading

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New York Magazine coverEmily Nussbaum wrote a must-read piece for New York Magazine on the emerging "generation gap" being caused by this generation's comfort level with living their young adult lives publicly online. She writes that the new gap goes something like this:

Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry -- for God's sake, their dirty photos! -- online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention -- and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.

Do a quick gut check. Is this your perception of today's teens? Does it ring true as you watch your own teens chatting away over IM or when you happen to discover one their friend's MySpace pages, which might be littered with "inappropriate" photos?

Nussbaum writes that while "more young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would...they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy."

She also points out three big differences between this generation and generations past:

They think of themselves as having an audience - Blame it on the confessional nature of reality TV, but the new reality is that adolescents are experiencing a phenomenon Danah Boyd calls "invisible audiences."

Since their early adolescence, they've learned to modulate their voice to address a set of listeners that may shrink or expand at any time: talking to one friend via instant message (who could cut-and-paste the transcript), addressing an e-mail distribution list (archived and accessible years later), arguing with someone on a posting board (anonymous, semi-anonymous, then linked to by a snarky blog). It's a form of communication that requires a person to be constantly aware that anything you say can and will be used against you, but somehow not to mind.

In a new world where anyone can become a celebrity either on reality TV or YouTube, Nussbaum explains that "every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure. And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it -- and doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them."

I thought this difference (having an audience) was the most interesting and underlies her other two differences:

They have archived their adolescence through blogs, profiles, videos and other aspects of their digital trail that remain online.

Their skin is thicker than yours.

This does not mean, as many an apocalyptic op-ed has suggested, that young people have no sense of shame. There's a difference between being able to absorb embarrassment and not feeling it. But we live in a time in which humiliation and fame are not such easily distinguished quantities. And this generation seems to have a high tolerance for what used to be personal information splashed in the public square.

So what does this new reality mean for parents and educators working with teens? Should you impose your own values about privacy and what's comfortable for you onto them?

I think adults have to understand these changes and be ok with the reality that young people are more comfortable living their lives both online and off. This doesn't mean adults from previous generations should abdicate their rights as parents. I think Nussbaum glosses over the real life fallout teens, parents and educators are experiencing when teens overshare online. Whether teens are cyberbullying, posting or even emailing sexual images, or just talking smack about their friends, the drama being created is real. And as long as law enforcement, school administrators or prospective employers continue arrest, prosecute, suspend, expel or not interview young people for the inappropriate content they are posting, I don't think having a thick skin is enough to prevent the real consequences that are happening -- whether you consider them to be overreactions or not.

Parents still need to be in constant dialogue with teens about internet safety and ethics. If there is a message for parents in Nussbaum's piece, it is understanding how this generation of teens has simply embraced technology as an extension of their identities and offline lives. And that as a result of an increasingly exhibitionistic culture combined with the democraticization of media and fame, many young people are becoming more comfortable sharing their personal thoughts and feelings with the world.

What's interesting about this is that when I started researching my book, many teens didn't realize their personal blogs or MySpace profiles could be seen by anyone besides their friends. I still think this holds true in that teens don't expect adults (parents, teachers, authorities) to be looking at their public profiles and become quite upset when they do. As a counterpoint to Nussbaum's piece, I would argue that there has also been a big increase in teens who are using enhanced privacy settings to keep their profiles private.