Living in a digital world

Living in a digital world

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Tips to help 'Digital Natives' navigate the social dilemmas of a digital world
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Laura Gallo
Laura Gallo

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Today’s adolescents have grown up in a world revolving around digital technology.

According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of American teens use the Internet. Even if teens are not on a digital device, they are surrounded by images, links, and references related to staying connected and being in the “know” through the Internet, cell phones, and other devices.

Young people of this generation have been labeled digital natives because of their heavy reliance and use of the Internet and digital technology. Many of the Internet sites adolescents visit are related to social media and the ability to communicate with others. Many teens stay connected to each other through texts, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media platforms, and their digital use has become a natural extension of their lives. The ability to “control” their social world, express themselves, and connect with others, fulfills developmental needs adolescents have at this time in their lives.

It is difficult to find research proving whether connectedness through digital means has a positive or negative effect on teens’ lives. As a practicing school counselor, I have experienced the growing phenomenon of digital technology in students’ lives. Almost daily, students arrive at my door with negative issues related to texts, Twitter, or Facebook. The impact these experiences have on their lives can be disruptive, harmful, and long lasting. It is a challenge to help teens work through the hurtful messages other students send to them, knowing it would never have been said in person. I can’t help but wonder if some teens aren’t “hiding" behind their devices.

Nevertheless, not all experiences are negative. Some students report feelings of acceptance from online friends and a sense of belonging they have not encountered previously. Adolescents are able to communicate with others all over the world, learn new perspectives, and find peers who accept them for who they are. Many teens have expressed great satisfaction in the support they have received via friends and acquaintances, old and new, over the Internet. Many feel they would not have made it through difficult life situations without this support.

Living a life immersed in technology has become part of the culture for digital natives and one unfamiliar to many parents and educators. Therefore, many adults are ill equipped to handle complexities that may arise.

But this does not mean adults cannot step up and help. There are many resources available to them through a quick search on—you guessed it, the Internet. Counselors can also help by staying current on issues related to online safety and answer questions coming in from parents and students. Summer may be an especially important time to be aware of teens’ use of social media as they are spending more free time on their devices and wanting to stay connected to their peers.

Below, I’ve listed a few simple tips adults can use:

  • Become familiar with social media sites, understand privacy and security measures—know the “language” of the sites, for example: how to “block” someone on Facebook.
  • If you have a child who uses these sites, check their pages for activity, and who they are interacting with.
  • Have discussions with your child and/or students about online safety, appropriate disclosure of private information, engaging in chats with unknown individuals, and more.

Pew Internet Research is an organization devoted to researching the impact of the Internet on American life. Here is a link to a report on Internet use in teens: www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-Privacy.aspx .

There are risks to interacting with strangers you do not know or have never met face to face. Teens are sharing more than words over instant messaging—they are sharing photos, links, music, and videos. Teens use these platforms to express who they are, communicate their ideas, and share their experiences. Regardless of what adults think (or desire), experts believe digital natives will continue to share personal information online even as they get older.

In my experience, most young people are not willing to give up their digital devices, regardless of the negative experiences they sometimes encounter. Therefore, adults need to work on finding ways to help teens navigate the social dilemmas of a digital world.

Laura Gallo has been a school counselor at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, for the past eight years. She is also a graduate student in the University of Iowa College of Education pursuing her doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision.

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Laura Gallo, College of Education

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