When I was a goofy teenager back in the 80s, I did a lot of creative writing and journal-style reflection. A lot. I was just imagining how wonderful it would be to have all of those ramblings from my old Apple IIe. How interesting it would be to dig right into those teen emotions and memories!
Perhaps it's best to let some of the past become... a little blurry?
Today, many kids start with Facebook in elementary school. Even before they've begun the complex adolescent journey of identity development and values discernment, they've started carefully counting their online friends. By the end of middle school, many of today's youth have spent countless hours online chatting and managing e-friendship politics.
Real life and online life are seamless for them. That part I can get. I think.
But the part my head definitely can't wrap around is that today's young children can remain in immediate contact with this social network for their entire lives. Imagine all of those kids who moved away during your K-12 years. Imagine those you left behind when you moved. Now imagine having been on Facebook/Skype with all them for your entire life. Conversely, imagine being unable to distance yourself. Even if you unplug, the social network reality remains. That bully or that enemy from middle school is going to continue popping up as "somebody you might know" because you share friends and data. That argument you had in 9th grade on Facebook will always remain.
The day will come when elementary school friends will die and still be on Facebook. I can't get my head around this childhood-to-graveyard, seamless social reality.
I moved quite a few times as a child and went to many different schools. From the big city to a small one. A central part of my adolescent development was about "getting out" of that small town life… about dreaming of new horizons. Like many people, my life involves critical breaks from the past as I explored the world and essentially developed my identity. How many of us had at least one time in their life where they just needed to break away? Travel. New friends. New world. It's one thing to reconnect with the past. That is exciting. It's entirely another matter to never disconnect.
Will today's youth ever be able to venture out "on their own" like youth of yesteryear?
As a writer, I find this question to be a powerful challenge.
Imagine if you could never truly break away? Your elementary school, middle school, high school, and college "friends" are all right there on Facebook (or whatever)… for your entire life. And there's no escaping mom and dad during college! Now I respect that kids learn to negotiate and manage these online dynamics, sometimes purging "friends and family," but it still seems like a profoundly different developmental reality with this new type of social networking. It isn't just a matter of privacy.
Kids today seem pressured to think of themselves in terms of publicity and public relations on a level that we never had to worry about. Remember being 14 and feeling like you were always on stage? Even when alone, teens often feel that sense of eyes on them. Do today's youth ever get to let go of that feeling? Just think of all the news stories of online bullying, suicides, etc. For them, there seems to be no sense of breaking free of the publicity and visibility (not the same thing as fame). What does it mean to be "independent" in that panoptical context? This seems like a great theme for YA writers to wrestle with.
Are we surprised that "unwanted publicity" themes explode in popular stories for youth?
I believe this theme is one of the reasons Hunger Games resonates so deeply. The protagonist's life is at stake in how she manages unwanted, nearly seamless publicity. This goes way beyond our worn discussions of reality television.
However, I also wonder about the reverse side of this thematic coin.
What will today's youth remember? Will their life stories be too carefully managed and edited? If you can never completely lose touch or distance yourself from it, then will you ever fully appreciate it?
Isn't the juicy stuff where our stories snap apart?
And in the fully-alive-but-blurry moments of complete privacy...