Sexting. Cyberbullying. Porn addiction. Screen addiction. When it comes to teenagers and technology, what makes it into the news can be grim. But the reality is that for most teenagers, there are many positive and tangible benefits of technology. Technology has changed the lives of teenagers. And for some, it’s literally a life saver.
“The message for parents is to be afraid of all this technology. And we should feel really bad when our tweens are in front of screens,” says Jennifer Lehner, a Cleveland-based social media expert. “We’re told, ‘Shut them down, password protect everything, and look at everything.’ It can feel like a no-win situation. But what we overlook is that there are tremendous opportunities that come with technology.”
The Merits of Technology
So, we decided to take an up-close look at some of those opportunities. Here’s what we discovered.
1. Creative Expression
Before the Internet, few people got the chance to widely distribute their creative work. These days, creative expression is one of the obvious benefits of technology. Anyone with a computer — even just a smartphone — can produce and share work online. Thousands of people can potentially see it your novel, short story, photography, film, or other visual art. Take the recent indie hit Tangerine, a full-length feature film made in Los Angeles with an iPhone and an $8 app.
“There are a lot of creative outlets for teenagers who are writers and artists. That includes a fan-fiction community or an art-sharing community,” explains Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of Screenwise. Some of her favorites for writers include storybird.com where you can make a book in minutes. TeenInk.com and One-Story.com are two sites devoted to publishing teenage writers.
Even what may seem like run-of-the-mill online activities — hello, Snapchat — offers ways for teenagers to express their creativity, adds Lehner. “The things that people are doing with Snapchat are amazing. Tweens can doodle, draw, add video.”
2. Community (and Connection)
One of the greatest benefits of technology is helping teens to connect with others. Some teenagers struggle to make friends. Others have unique interests that their off-line peers don’t share. And, sadly, some teenagers — particularly LGBT — live in communities that don’t accept them for who they are.
Thanks to the internet, these teenagers now have an opportunity to engage meaningfully with others. A gay teenager growing up in a rural, socially conservative community no longer needs to feel isolated and alone. Teenagers with a passion for rare birds or medieval reenactment can find hundreds of like-minded peers online. And teenagers who are social misfits offline can now have a posse of online friends to meet up with virtually after school to play video games.
“Teenagers can find others with shared interests outside their immediate community,” notes Heitner.
3. Professional Branding
We don’t love the term “branding” to talk about teenagers, but it does sum up another major benefit of technology: like adults, teenagers can use LinkedIn, a personal website, and many other services to tell the world who they are.
“You have the opportunity to create the story about yourself that you want to tell,” explains Lehner. “Say you’ve created a movie, a song, a PowerPoint. You can share this in a way that makes you shine.” Lehner even recommends that parents purchase the domain that best matches their teenager’s name (johnsmith.com). “Just hang on to it until they are ready to use it,” she explains.
Lehner adds that teens can start their LinkedIn account as young as 13. “In the summary feature, teens can just add accomplishments as they make them: the documentary they made for a group project, the video of the violin recital, etc. By the time they need a resume, they can just send a link. And it’s going to be head and shoulders above anyone else’s stale resume that they are submitting.” It’s also a great way to let college admissions officers know more about you.
Finally, says Lehner, while teenagers may be using technology in ways that we couldn’t have imagined when we were their age, there are still a few things we can teach them. “Here’s what teenagers really need to know: password protection, what a corrupt file looks like, how to do an effective Google search, and, lastly, the importance of regularly updating apps (which will keep your device as secure as possible).”