Watching my teens interact on the Internet sometimes feel like coming full circle. My own experience with Internet relationships started in the early nineties on a fetish board, complete with black screen and green print. During that time, I was on the tail-end of an emotionally abusive relationship coupled with a lot of confusion about my sexual identity.
Socially awkward even at the best of times, this vulnerable time left me with even more anxiety around people than normal. Being able to form relationships online allowed me to work out my identity as well as separate abuse from pleasure. It also opened up meeting real people who expanded my horizons in ways for which I’ll be forever grateful. Now I see my teens reaching out online to form communities as they navigate their own shifting and sometimes confusing identities.
And for my daughter with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), the Internet opened up a space for her to have friendships that are not always possible in the “real” world. But mingled with the pleasure of watching my kids embrace this new world, there is the constant push of tech shaming.
The end of the world is near, parents and others moan.
“Look at all these people on their phones. Why don’t they have real relationships? What happened to conversation? Why are all these kids playing Pokemon Go instead of working?” And so on.
But I want to take a positive spin and suggest some new ways to think about tech use. Instead of jumping onto the shame train, here’s five ways to reframe how to see technology using my family — a family that includes epilepsy, LGBTQ identities, ASD, Down syndrome, depression, and anxiety — as a small example.
1. The Internet has provided us with ways of having friends that we might not have otherwise.
My daughter has a hard time reading people and people have a hard time reading her. She also doesn’t always read social cues the way a neurotypical person might read them. As a result, she’s had a hard time making friends.
When she discovered online relationships, her world changed. Online, her struggle to read people’s facial expressions was not an issue. She could take breaks as needed. And she meets others who not only get her but want to be friends with her. It totally shifted how she saw friendship.
She learned how to talk with others. How to express her needs while balancing the needs of others. All in the safety of having a buffer, a la the computer screen.
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For me, the issue lies more in social anxiety and depression. When the two collide, I can barely leave the house without hours of psychological preparations. The act of going shopping and facing a cashier can fill me with dread.
But I’m also an extrovert, and I like engaging with people. I’m the one who is always up for a political conversation, or who wants to talk about the new book I just finished. As I discovered long ago, online friendships help me through my difficult social times.
Here’s the thing: online relationships have helped both me and my daughter have real-life friendships.
My daughter is now more comfortable with people in the so-called “real world” because she’s had successes online. I have more energy for my present friends because when I need to save energy I can do so online. In addition, we both have developed relationships with people we’ve never physically met.
I had online friends send me a spa day after I struggled with a lonely birthday after a new move. Friends who checked in with me when my daughter was in the hospital or when my son was still having seizures. I’ve cried with friends and laughed with them, and these friendships are as valid and real as the ones I have in the flesh.
2. Games like Pokemon Go get us all outside and moving as well as interacting.
When the kids were young, we used to do letter boxing and geo caching. We loved spending hours looking in the woods for the little boxes where we could leave our stamp. I wonder now what people thought as we stumbled around with our phones in hand. I bet more than a few gave disgusted sighs about our inability to let go of our phones. The thing was, our phone was being used as a GPS tracker. In addition, we used our phone to take pictures of plants we couldn’t identify and other curiosities.
Pokemon Go (oh hi there, 2016!) proved to be a similar experience, not just for us but thousands of other people. One night when Pokemon Go was popular, we walked around our downtown and bumped into one of my friends. We were hailed by all her friends, my daughter wowed them all with her Pokemon knowledge, and then we had a great conversation about Black Lives Matters, the Pulse massacre, and my friend’s desire to open a half-way house for teens kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ.
Coupled with the many people this game has gotten out of the house as they managed depression and social anxiety, it’s easy to shift from seeing these games as silly and isolating to things that open up the world.
3. Tech is a tool.
For those with disabilities, be they intellectual, physical, or mental health-related, tech can make our lives more rewarding and easier to navigate.
When you see my preschooler on her iPad, don’t assume I’m a lazy parent. She might actually be using an app to communicate with us because she’s nonverbal. Her apps help her to learn ASL. We’re teaching her to use programs where she can point to pictures.
My Autistic daughter on the cell phone at the restaurant might be seconds from a meltdown, but listening to her favorite song helps her calm down. What you see and assume might not be what’s going on, and it’s always worth a second to stop and ask yourself what’s actually happening here. For some people, that iPad is as much a valuable tool as an electric wheelchair is for others.
Because of the Internet, I’ve been to make appointments for mental health appointments because using the phone is part of my social anxiety. I can bank and shop on the days when I can’t leave the house for fear of having a panic attack.
4. Being on the Internet has helped my kids develop a social consciousness.
The other night, my thirteen year-old sat down and wanted to talk about the police being shot in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We’d talked to our children about police brutality, of course, but our young daughter wanted to talk about the retaliation on the police because she’d read some things on Reddit.
She engaged us in a thoughtful, provocative conversation, taking points both from and against what she’d seen on Reddit. This is not the first time our children have come to us after reading or discussing things on the Internet.
My son, who is relatively isolated from the gay community in our town due to his age (it’s a primarily older group), formed a community online. After the Pulse shooting, he spent the day in grief and anger with his friends tweeting his outrage. It was a painful lesson, as his identity has always been celebrated and supported. He came to us, of course, and he went to the vigil in our town, but he mourned with the friends he made online.
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Even for myself, I am certain that while I’d likely always have turned toward social justice, online friendships and communities shaped me for the better in this area. The board I mentioned in the opening brought me into contact with my first transgender friend, who opened my eyes to her and others’ struggle. She also shattered all my ideas about gender.
Online I have found the body positivity movement and the disability rights movement. I have found community in my outrage and encouragement in my struggles for equality. I consolidated these beliefs through my online friends.
5. You wouldn’t be reading this article if it weren’t for tech.
Being a writer for an online magazine of course means I’m a fan of technology and the Internet. The Body is Not an Apology provides me a space to share what I’ve learned, what I struggled with, and what I hope to become with thousands of others out there. By extension, I get to read the same thing from all the other writers’ perspectives as well as our readers’ comments. This constant flood of evolving, changing, shifting information always keeps me from getting comfortable in any mindset, and that shaking up is important for my personal growth.
Awash in a sea of unedited, at-the-scene, flash-second thoughts can be over-whelming. There are days when I too long for the past, when my news came twice a day on the television, or once a month in a magazine after being thoroughly vetted by editors. There were less words to wade through as well as less voices to examine. But I also have come to value the instantaneous and varied sources I have at all times.
I thought this when I watched DeRay McKesson being arrested real time through Periscope. Did it change his fate that millions of us watched and cried out? I don’t know for sure, but I do know it’s worth considering. It’s worth taking a moment to think about the fact that everyone has a chance to voice their take on an event. It challenges us, yes, to think critically, but we should have been doing that all along. With the rawness of a mourning protester I have come to see the value in seeing news from the ground.
If history is written by the victors, perhaps our new ways of recording the moment allows other stories to emerge historically.
Not every individual or family uses or embraces technology as much as my family does. And you know what? That’s okay. Not all tools work for all people. But I encourage you, the next time you read a meme about kids using their cell phones at an art gallery, to think before you criticize. Those teens might be using an online program that helps them understand and appreciate what they’re seeing more. Before you share another meme mocking those who play something like Pokemon Go, remember that someone who hasn’t left the house in weeks is now outside having fun.
[Feature Image: An individual with brown skin and black hair swept up in a bun stands outdoors wearing a cream blouse, blue patterned blazer, and large hoop earrings. A black backpack hangs from their shoulders. They are holding their cellphone up and looking at it with an enthralled expression, their mouth open in surprised joy. Source: Pexels]