Millennial Life: How We Travel the Virtual World Is the Guide for Our Children
I do remember a time before social media. However, my childhood wasn't the carefree type, the ones you hear described with nostalgia, back when gangs of gangly children roamed the streets and came home when the streetlights came on. My Mom came to America during the late '80s, with a cute toddler version of me. She had a firm belief in two things. First, that a mysterious "they" were stealing kids off those poorly lit streets, and second, that Americans as a whole were just scary.
At the time my mom was afraid of what she didn't know, but she couldn't stop my entry into a culture she had unease about because I was surrounded by it. Then came another foreign place: the internet -- another place she had no experience.
An article from CNN suggested that millennials are having a tough time relating to their children and the pressures from social media on their identities and self-esteem. It feels like a wild claim when we, as whole adults, suffer under the same constructs that we're watching our children get pulled into and have worked under those same pressures for decades already.
I watched the internet grow around me. It grew tendrils into my real-life relationships; it's where I met my husband. It helped construct parts of my identity; it's where I first started to write. It also dinged my self-esteem, especially when my kitchen could certainly be more Pinterest-inspired and my body could be much more toned or plumped, depending on the social mandates of the moment.
There were no real net nannies when I started online, and while clicking around, I started asking questions that came with unfiltered answers. I asked about religion. I asked about sex. I asked about violence, and when slowly loaded images could show the very worst of humanity, they came with more questions and worries.
There wasn't much teaching that my parents could do to guide me, because it was all brand-new, but a stray line from my dad stuck with me. At the beginning, when we explored what the computer could do and tried out chats, he marveled that you could be anyone behind the screen. "And so could the other person," he mused.
For a while, I had a friend in Sweden who shared music with me. I joined a Christian chat room that never discussed religion, but that always had people to keep you company. I made friends with other bloggers through writing challenges. All of these people probably existed in some form or another, and I could stretch who I was to try on different identities in which I could grow into my own.
There was a shift when my friends started coming online. First it was a novelty to chat through the computer, and then it grew more complicated with establishing profiles on Myspace. The internet started to take on a new dimension that I wasn't particularly comfortable with -- that my real-world identity might get linked with my online personas. Plus, I started to deal with real-world social fallout when others could see who I chose to display as a friend on a website. It was bizarre. More of my friends joined me when we locked down and started to cherish our privacies. (We then marveled when our parents slowly started to open up more online than we did.)
When my kids go more online, it'll be my behavior that will be part of their guide. They already keenly watch how I interact with friends, but I'll need to teach the same critical thinking that we use for other, more complex interactions. And, I'll have reminders that, yes, the person you see in that video might look very beautiful, but aren't there filters for you to change the color of your eyes, the smoothness of your skin, the angles of your chin? If it's something available to them, wouldn't it be available to others as well?
As millennials, and other generations who watch the youngest of our society grapple with the internet and social media, we need first to be honest with ourselves, and our children, about the dangers of the world, which now include the internet as an everyday presence. We teach them the rules for crossing the street, but some of those streets will now be virtual, and we are walking them together.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Cassie McClure and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.