Kids These Days

It Sucks to Be a Teen on the Internet Today

And you thought having to clear out your cookies was bad?
 It Sucks to Be a Teen on the Internet Today

OMG!! (Photo: Family.go.com)

In the mid-90s, when this reporter was in elementary school, we developed a code for AOL instant messenger to alert our chat buddies whenever our parents had entered the room or were looking over our shoulders. “1,” we would type, when they were lurking around, to let our buddies know not to type anything inappropriate, and “11” when they eventually left.

We were rarely actually talking about anything that could get us into real trouble–back then “inappropriate” meant the boys we had crushes on and articles about the Spice Girls that we weren’t technically allowed to read because they were in grownup magazines like Vogue. But we enjoyed the conspiratorial feeling of having a secret language, of having something that belonged to us and only us. It was a treasured part of being young–and it is apparently something that teens today don’t get to enjoy.

According to an article in the New York Times, parents are using our quantitative obsession to track their teens’ every move. And it’s not just online, but on their phones, in the car and when they’re out and about, too.

Writes the Times:

If, a few years ago, the emphasis was on blocking children from going to inappropriate sites on the family computer, today’s technologies promise to embed Mom and Dad — and occasionally Grandma — inside every device that children are using, and gather intelligence on them wherever they go.

Uh, yikes. We hate to invoke the old “back in my day” argument, but if you thought deleting your cookies after every browsing session was annoying, can you imagine how much it must suck to be a teen today? Cell phones grant them the illusion of freedom, but with parents tracking their every text, email, Facebook post and YouTube view, it’s like having a Weibo account–feel free to sign up, but watch what you say.

Granted, some of the efforts to protect children online are definitely reasonable, particularly in our age of cyberbullying. The Times mentions the flirting app Skout, which has had several minors report sexual assault by people they met on the service. But there has to be a better balance between Big Brother surveillance and basic parental protection. Perhaps try talking to your kids about digital safety instead of spying on them?

Years later, after AIM’s popularity had run its course, we discovered that our parents knew what the “1” and “11” code meant all along. But it was nice to think we had our own language, if only for a little while.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com