Guest Essay

An illustration of a large smartphone, bigger than a person, being lifted up by a crowd of people who are angry and arguing. On top of the phone is a teenager, looking concerned.
Credit…Andrea Settimo

By Lux Alptraum

Ms. Alptraum is the author of “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal.”

When Matthew McConaughey and his wife, Camila Alves McConaughey, took to Instagram to jointly announce a new venture this summer, you might have expected it to be an upcoming film or a fledgling lifestyle brand. Their news was more unusual: the unveiling of an official Instagram account for their son Levi, which they were giving to him on his 15th birthday, long after many of his friends had signed up, they noted.

Celebrities have taken a wide array of approaches to granting their children access to social media — and thereby granting the public access to their children. Apple Martin, the daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, has always kept her Instagram private and once shamed her mother for publicly sharing a photo of her without her consent. DJ Khaled’s son has been on Instagram since shortly after birth. Whatever the approach, we’ve seen how easily personal revelations, flippant comments and family drama become fodder for public scrutiny and ridicule.

One of Ted Cruz’s teenage daughters became a viral sensation at age 13 after publicly disagreeing on TikTok with his political stances; a number of news outlets also latched on to her apparent disclosure that she was bisexual but not yet out to her parents. The teenage daughter of the political activist George Conway and the political adviser Kellyanne Conway went viral on TikTok and Twitter in 2020 for airing family conflicts, including a video she surreptitiously made of her mother yelling at her for airing family conflicts. And one night the daughter of the filmmaker Sofia Coppola and the musician Thomas Mars sneaked onto TikTok — a site, she noted in the video, she was explicitly barred from using — to talk about being grounded for using her dad’s credit card to try to charter a helicopter. She wasn’t worried, though; as she notes in the video, “TikTok’s not going to make me famous.” As it turned out, she was mistaken.

Whenever such a moment happens, the internet reacts gleefully to a rare peek into the private lives of famous or fame-adjacent people. Who doesn’t love to watch people making embarrassing blunders online? If the surreptitious peek happens to reveal something personal, private or embarrassing — well, the fault is theirs for posting it, right? After all, the internet is public.

Famous or not, teenagers today have never known a world without social media, so it’s easy to assume they just understand all the risks that come with making their personal lives public. But even for the most digitally savvy among us, it can be hard to conceptualize just what global visibility really means. This is especially true of teenagers, who are prone to risky behavior and bad judgment, and who are ill equipped to assess the potential impact of their actions. At a time when sites like TikTok have become the de facto way teenagers connect with friends, they’re much more likely to post a stray thought or embarrassing admission (or worse) with no consideration that it might end up capturing the attention of the world. I know this firsthand, because it happened to me.

In my own youth, way back at the turn of the millennium when I was an 18-year-old college student, I started sharing my personal life online. All of it. With the help of a webcam and a LiveJournal, I gave an audience access to every corner of my existence. If you wanted to, you could read about my relationship with my boyfriend; you could also watch the two of us having sex.

When I posted all of this stuff online, I technically understood that I was sharing the most intimate corners of my life with the public — that anyone could see what I had posted, even people I didn’t want to share it with. But on an emotional level, it was hard to comprehend just how public my posts actually were. My LiveJournal seemed obscure and hard to find, my webcam was locked behind a paywall, and I was sharing everything under a fake name. All of this helped me feel like the internet was my own private playground — one accessible to strangers but safely off limits to the people who actually knew me.

Of course, I was wrong, as I quickly learned. People I knew inevitably found my posts and they turned on me. Journal entries I’d seen as harmless recountings of college-age shenanigans were framed as hurtful gossip intended to sow discord and humiliate my peers. I may have been amassing a fan base, but it came at the expense of my real-life friends.

In the social media age, teenagers are more likely to suffer the opposite delusion: that their friends can see them online but the world can’t, or won’t care if it does. Yet again and again they’re proved wrong on both counts. So far, the big-picture protective measures championed by adults to shield teenagers have been legislative: laws like Louisiana’s HB 142 and Utah’s SB 152 and HB 311 that seek to limit kids’ access to the internet, either by mandating age verification for porn sites or imposing sharp restrictions on teenage social media use. But I don’t think we need to change the way teenagers interact with the internet. We need to change how the rest of us interact with online teenagers.

Ms. Coppola’s daughter, for example, deleted her video shortly after it began to go viral. It lived on only because adults, ranging from private citizens to legitimate news organizations, saved it, reuploaded it, shared it, wrote about it and mocked it. After all, the internet is public, right? That glib caveat may have started as a well-intentioned reminder for vulnerable users, but it has become a blanket justification for amplifying anything people find online, even if it’s been created by, or about, a child.

A kid clumsily practicing lightsaber moves? If you saw it in person, it would barely be worth paying attention to, let alone alerting your friends, and pointing and laughing would seem obviously cruel and gross. Yet when a video like this was uploaded in 2003 — around the time I was baring my soul to the world online — it quickly became one of the most viewed, and widely mocked, videos on the internet. If a politician’s daughter turns up at an in-person L.G.B.T.Q. youth group to discuss her sexuality, broadcasting it to the world would be a blatantly harmful act. But if she mentions it online in an unguarded moment, many people think nothing of amplifying that disclosure. In real life, we understand that teenagers deserve the space and privacy to be teenagers, free from mockery or public disdain. Why don’t we extend the same courtesy or display the same decency online?

The nonfamous among us can take a cue from the way celebrities approach this conundrum — after all, they have much more experience with the potentially scathing nature of the spotlight. Making a big deal of giving your child access to social media will, at the very least, help the kid understand that it’s a big step. One day that kid may make a public misstep. But the ultimate responsibility now lies with us, the people these kids encounter online, to give teenagers the space to explore their identities, to even make mistakes and mess up, without being party to their humiliation. We should be examples to them online, not perils lurking to pounce.

I’m fortunate that my own teenage mistakes happened when the internet was still relatively new. I never went truly viral, and the worst of the damage I experienced was confined to a relatively small blast radius. Yet 20 years later, I believe more than ever that we need to develop a new internet etiquette, one with a more nuanced understanding about what it means for anyone to post something in this “public” space. Teenagers especially deserve our consideration and our protection. If they post something mortifying, don’t repost. Don’t favorite. And definitely don’t download and repost. If you see it online, ask yourself what you’d do if you saw it in person. As we say to kids all the time: Make a better choice.

Lux Alptraum is a podcaster and the author of “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal.”

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