It’s taken me awhile to process Rehteah Parsons’ recent death. It’s only been 6 months since Amanda Todd’s suicide. It’s also been in recent history that a Nova Scotian teenager (“A.B.”) had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to maintain her anonymity while taking legal action against peers who created a false Facebook page about her, intended to humiliate her. WHAT IS GOING ON? I mean, I got the memo years ago as a boy—we don’t value women or girls in our culture in the same way that we value boys—and perhaps it’s going to continue to require these kinds of tragedies and legal battles so that we can stop congratulating ourselves as a culture that we are a bias-free/discrimination-free equal society for everyone. Ugh. But what sticks with me most is that in discussions of these various tragedies I repeatedly hear that adults cannot penetrate the world of teenagers, especially now due to social media.
Social media may allow for us to be in frequent contact with one another, but it appears that it also simultaneously reduces the meaning in our interactions. Recently a University of Winnipeg study demonstrated a correlation between increased texting and decreased self-reflection, decreased value placed on morals and ethics and an increase in ethnic prejudice. Clearly, this is one of those times when less is not more, but less is less…140 characters at a time doesn’t really allow us to go into depth about what’s going on with one another.
Social media on its own, however, doesn’t explain why the lives of our teenagers are so secret. Social media and peer contact is something we push in our culture. We want to make sure that our children are well liked and have lots of friends. We come to assume that throughout the teenage years our children will not need us the way they did when they were children. We see it as normal and typical that our teenagers think of their “elders” as people not to be trusted. IT IS NOT NORMAL OR ADVISEABLE! The world of teenagers is off-limits to us only if we don’t really connect with our young people. During adolescence, teenagers don’t stop needing the adults in their lives—they need them in different ways.
Perhaps it will become a constant refrain for me, but everything we do is about relationships. I have referenced Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work in a previous post, and it really bears repeating here. Children who are well connected to the adults in their lives don’t sexually assault their peers. Children who are well connected to the adults in their lives don’t behave with such cruelty and malice.
While we may not be able to do anything about the current tragedies, there’s a cautionary tale here. Connecting with children, when they are children, will grease some wheels during adolescence. What I like about Neufeld’s work is that he thinks it’s never too late to try, but also that it’s never too early to start making that strong connection with children. Neufeld has recommendations regarding how to try to re-connect, but nothing works better than developing that strong connection to begin with. Connecting can be as simple as asking young people you care about what they think about something in their lives, or asking them to play a game or hang out with you without waiting for them to ask you. Connecting with kids is like courting them, not with gifts and toys, but with interest in who they are as people. It isn’t putting the pork chop around your neck to make the dog play with you, but rather offering a real, human connection that we all strive for. That connection makes us, as adults, more interesting than Twitter or Facebook feeds, and helps our young people to stand up for one another, rather than stand against one another. Rehteah Parsons, Amanda Todd and “A.B.” are canaries in the proverbial coal-mine. We all need to be paying attention to when we stop hearing their songs.