A new proposal has surfaced which would force under-16s in Europe to get parental consent in order to access social media, and people are quite rightly outraged. Everyone from the Huffington Post to MTV have reported on the reasons why this would put vulnerable young people at risk.
When I was a teenager we didn’t really have social media. MySpace was a thing in the UK and US but where I grew up (Ibiza – no, it’s not as cool as you might think) there was MSN messenger and a smattering of dodgy chat rooms, and that was about it until I went to university, flirted briefly with Facebook and then fell head over heels in love with Twitter, before discovering the wonders the rest of the social internet had to offer.
I have no doubt that had these options been available to me at 13, my mum would never had opted in to letting me be a part of it. Whilst forward-thinking, she is of a generation that is still sceptical about the internet, and thinks there is more harm in children being a part of it than good. That, paired with a well-meaning overprotectiveness (the no-sleepovers-on-a-schoolnight rule was strictly enforced until two months before my 18th birthday) would have meant that I’d have missed out on a whole wondrous world – even if the technology had been there as it is today.
The thing about teenagers, is that their world is a tiny, confused place – a circular closed-off ecosystem in which blandness is aspirational and individuality is the original sin. Part of this may well be, as popular belief goes, due to the dreaded “hormones”, but I think it’s more than that. As soon as you leave school you have multiple frames of reference, and the older you get the more environments you’ve experienced, meaning you’re more comfortable with diversity. Part of what makes adults semi-well-adjusted most of the time is the fact that we’ve usually lived in more than one location, with different types of people (family, friends, romantic partners, random housemates, etc), we’ve experienced school, mundane jobs, career-making jobs, university, friends of friends and created unique communities that make sense for us. Teenagers don’t have this option. Or they didn’t until the internet.
Of course these benefits are based on interaction with strangers, precisely the element of social media most parents fear, particularly when it comes to young girls. There are important steps to be taken to educating young people in how to stay safe online, and part of it should begin in school – ideally in primary schools, before the instinct to roll one’s eyes and rebel against anything and everything really kicks in. When it comes to properly updating the curriculum, I’m all for government intervention.
Young people need to be able to see past their bubble of parents and school, experience differing opinions on an even footing in order to hit the world with properly formed views. Girls who are now where I was at 13 need to find communities that prefer to make their own 1950s circle skirts than wear the standard H&M uniform of jeans likely to cut off your circulation and designer-embossed T-shirts just as much as they need to hear the voices of women who have achieved greatness despite having the odds stacked against them. They need to find out how to make amazing homemade gifts on Pinterest as much as they need to understand the things they’ve never seen – be they the the trans kids bearing their souls on YouTube or the comedians turning every GOP candidate into a meme.
I desperately wish that as a young teen I’d had this diversity at my fingertips, and had discovered that being witty in 140 characters is a genuine marketable skill. I wish that instead of magazine articles about how to disguise the sound of a tampon wrapper in a school toilet I’d been exposed to women who free-bleed in front of parliament because bodies are nothing to be ashamed of; that instead of reading about how I needed to make sure the first boy I kissed liked me back, I’d been learning about the importance of challenging gender binaries.
By the age of 16 the hideous pressures of alienation have already seeped into our malleable minds and formed insecurities and neuroses that can take a lifetime to overturn. Think of the greatness our young selves would be capable of with the combined knowledge of the whole planet but a few keystrokes away. Let’s not take that away from the people who need it the most.