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Going online, finding a voice

Not all the news is bad when it comes to young people and the Internet.

Mark Franek
Mark FranekRead more

By Mark Franek

Pen and paper - for some, they're a thing of the past.

The Internet is being used at least occasionally by more than 17 million American youths between the ages of 12 and 17, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. That's a full 85 percent of people in that age bracket. Young people are using mobile phones and computers for all of their communication and information-gathering needs.

The fact that young adults are almost totally in the dark when it comes to traditional forms of ink-and-paper communication appears to be scaring a lot of people (not just newspaper and magazine owners). There is a huge generational gap in people's attitudes and understandings about the Web.

Most people over 35 feel a bit uncomfortable about the absolute freedom - some might say anarchy - of voices in cyberspace. Those under 35 feel there is more than enough room online for seasoned journalists and rookie writers, including those with no talent.

The curious aspect of the Internet is not that cyber misconduct is occurring; it is that cyber misconduct is not occurring more often.

Sure, there will always be high-profile examples of egregious behavior, such as the recent story of the NCAA basketball player who posted an advertisement on Facebook, a social-networking site, offering money in exchange for a decently written college paper. Or the story about the eight Florida teens who recently filmed one another pummeling a classmate with the intent to post the spectacle on YouTube, the video-sharing site. They're anomalies.

The vast majority of young people who interact with one another online do so in a totally benign fashion. Sure, many of them end up posting material that crosses the line of good taste, but they quickly clean up their act when a level-headed peer or an adult gets involved.

The thing that most of us "geezers" over 35 don't get is that young people are using a few popular sites on the Web as extensions of their rapidly maturing identities - almost as playgrounds, places where they can try out new voices and personalities without risking ridicule or ostracism. Parents should not be horrified by this scenario.

We did the same thing back in high school every time a person passed around a sign-in book, the kind with all those goofy questions at the top of each page ("What's your astrological sign?" "Who's the hottest girl/guy in the school?" "Who's your favorite/least favorite teacher?"). Many of us enjoyed these unofficial yearbooks because their content was off limits to adults and occasionally titillating.

Same on the Internet.

As students mature, so do their blogs and Web pages. A young woman in a college class I teach recently told me that her MySpace pages now give her "the creeps." She has abandoned them and gravitated to Facebook, where she keeps track of her new college friends as well as her high school peers who are scattered around the country.

She also uses Facebook to consult with classmates about upcoming courses and professors (she's especially keen on avoiding lousy teachers), to find cheap textbooks from slightly older peers, and to search for used furniture for her off-campus apartment.

None of these uses of social-networking sites and blogs makes the evening news, but millions of these tiny transactions are happening every day, making the transition from young adult to rookie breadwinner a little easier.

Young people would like the rest of us to chill out and take some advice from the eternally optimistic Buzz Lightyear, that fictional character from

Toy Story

: "To infinity - and beyond!"

On the Internet, there will always be more things to admire than to despise. Especially if you know where to point your mouse.