Rights for the Digital Teenager

Yet managing risks for adolescents is hardly a new state of affairs. Anna Freud noted that it was very difficult for us to help teenagers, partly because of our wish to forget our own painful embarrassments that are an inevitable part of those years.

As Safer Internet Day 2015 comes to pass, I cannot help but register again how risk and safety dominate our thinking, especially when it comes to teenagers. Yet who amongst us could define what ordinary or healthy use of smartphones, tablets or games consoles will promote a young person's well-being and life chances? This is not just a problem for parents, but for any public sector worker or educator who is trying support the development of children. We are overflowing with safety tips and keep-safe messages, but are we investing enough in the discovery of what is good for young people as much as what may prove bad for them? Stopping the bad may sometimes also restrict the good, or even increase risk as restriction leads to frustration and escalation.

Yet managing risks for adolescents is hardly a new state of affairs. Anna Freud noted that it was very difficult for us to help teenagers, partly because of our wish to forget our own painful embarrassments that are an inevitable part of those years. The very term 'teenager' suggests an 'us and them' situation that goes back at least to the beginnings of urban, industrial living and certainly since 1824 when the term juvenile delinquency was used to describe some anti-social behaviours. In the thorough review of adolescence within in our culture, Jon Savage in his book 'Teenage' provides a wealth of examples which illustrate how many problems of our day have in fact occurred before, albeit offline. For example, descriptions from the late 19th century of young people "loitering about the streets and using vulgar language" and "refusing either to go to work or school, roaming the street late at night" could translate to today, if we just understood that the streets today may be an App, social media site or game. Indeed, a quote from Randolph S. Bourne from 1911 in the Atlantic Monthly, captures the attitude well:

"The young generation has practically brought itself up. School discipline, since the abolition of corporal punishment, has become almost nominal; church discipline practically nil; and even home discipline, although retaining the forms, is but an empty shell. The modern child from the age of ten is almost his own 'boss'."

It does not seem to be beyond the realms of possibility that these words could be less than 100 years old; apart from the absence of the obligatory and contemporary references to Smartphones, selfies and sexting perhaps. Yet it is curious, as with notions of a past and Golden Age, how difficult it is to remember that whilst for each generation, the struggle to be adolescent and the struggle to care for adolescents has its specific aspects, much remains core and consistent across time. Savage helpfully draws our attention to this through an informative article in the New York Times Magazine, from January 1945, concerning "A Teen-Age Bill of Rights". The proposer Elliott E. Cohen suggested with respect to adolescents the pendulum swung between: "What is wrong with them" and "What is wrong with us", as parents and educators looked to find the source of the distress and frustration experienced. This article remains important, even if the language changes, in its illumination of what young people hope for in their growing years. This Bill of Rights from 1945 asks for:

The right to let childhood be forgotten

The right to have a 'say' about his own life

The right to make mistakes, to find out for oneself

The right to have rules explained, not imposed

The right to have fun and companions

The right to question ideas

The right to be at the romantic age

The right to a fair chance and opportunity

The right to struggle toward his own philosophy of life

The right to professional help whenever necessary

How many of the questions of the digital age, and challenges, are captured here? The prescient request to 'let childhood be forgotten' is just as contemporary, although it is not infantalisation but a recognition of the digital footprint that drives the request today.

We may want to insert additional ones today, such as:

The right to refreshing sleep at night

The right to be protected from distressing images and videos

But if we followed all of the rights asked for in 1945, we wouldn't be going far wrong, even if this in itself is an idea that should be challenged, and modernised.

It was the American father of modern psychology, G. Stanley Hall, in 1904, who captured the struggles of young people noting "modern city life, to a degree which is hard to realize, is artificial and unnatural for youth". His compassion enabled him to consider that "these (teenage) years are the best decade in life. No age is so responsive to all the best and wisest adult endeavour." Stanley Hall favoured "sympathy, appreciation and respect in dealing with this age" and mischievously, even "students must have the freedom to be lazy"!

And so on Safer Internet Day, when we look to help young people find and create a better world online, let us also move towards establishing the Rights that any young person should have, regardless of the digital world, listening as we go to their views and hopes, but also to the voice of history, where wisdom remains.

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