The week of November 30, 2014

Parents just don’t understand

By Austin Powell

For roughly six months recently, my parents fostered a 16-year-old girl. To say it was a chaotic, emotional whirlwind would be an understatement for all parties involved.

My parents had finally settled into life with an empty nest. My mother found a social circle on the tennis courts, and my father was coasting (or at least trying trying to) into the twilight years of his career. But life has a funny way of disrupting plans. My mother’s CASA advocacy inspired them to take in a teenager she had been working with on relatively short notice. In less than a week, they were suddenly raising a high schooler.

It had been well over a decade since my brother or I lived at home. Obviously, a few things had changed in the interim, especially online. Without any sort of actual technical experience or much interest in AOL chatrooms, the most trouble I could seemingly get into at the time was for downloading albums overnight on Napster. In 2003, Myspace wasn’t even around yet, let alone the trappings of Facebook, where angsty posts and party pics now live in infamy. Sure, we both got suspended from school more than our fair share—only once together, for a food fight his senior year—but we didn’t have to worry about the permanence of those events, following us online for years to come.

That’s not the case anymore. As my folks quickly learned, the Internet has radically transformed the challenges of parenting—for better and for worse. The Web opens a world of information at your fingertips, with Wikipedia, Spotify, and YouTube on demand.

“The Internet has really changed our ability to answer questions,” notes Rusty Foster of the essential online newsletter Today in Tabs. “When I was a kid, we had a set of encyclopedias from the ’60s, and if someone had a question we had to try to look it up in the encyclopedia. If the answer wasn’t there, tough luck, you just stayed ignorant. Now we can answer any question, with sufficient searching and cross-referencing, and I think as a result my kids are much more informed and better critical thinkers than I was until probably high school.”

At the same time, the Internet has also enabled hook-up apps like Tinder, sexting on Snapchat, and cyberbullying on and beyond. It’s hard, if not impossible, to keep tabs on it all. As high school students told the Kernel in our Education 2.0 issue, there’s no longer an escape for kids from peer pressure. After school, the cool kids table just moves online.

We saw that first hand: My foster sister seemed to measure her self-worth by the number of Instagram likes she received, posting countless selfies—some duck-faced, many more in questionable poses—in a rather obvious ploy for attention. And the device she posted them with—a tablet, unlike anything my family was accustomed to—was issued her by her school, which only compounded the issue.

In this week’s issue of the Kernel, we look at both the promises and pitfalls of parenthood spurred by the social Web. In our cover story, Allen Weiner shares his personal and powerful adoption story, contrasting his nerve-wracking experience 22 years ago with its modern counterpart, empowered by the Internet and all of the informational tools, networking, and crowdfunding it affords. Likewise, Leslie Anne Jones delves into debate over the right amount of screen time for kids, and Elizabeth Sutherland details how the Internet provides essential resources to queer parents.

Elsewhere, Jaya Saxena explores the authenticity of dad humor, which is having something of a moment right now, while Today in Tabs’ Rusty Foster, the focal point of this issue’s Me IRL interview, sheds further light on the phenomenon and what it’s like navigating parental controls online.  

On the other side of the fence, Audra Schroeder comes to grips with her father joining Facebook, S.E. Smith addresses the oft-overlooked privacy concerns with mommy blogging, and Samantha Allen puts a price tag on the real cost of raising kids in 2014.

We don’t claim to have any answers or know what’s best for your kids, but we hope this issue sheds light on the myriad challenges facing parents today. Hopefully it’ll inspire you to give your folks a call this week, or cut them some slack the next time they endorse you on LinkedIn. I know I will.


Photo via Thomas Sauzedde – idirectori/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)