Monday, July 26, 2010

The Virtual Life of a Teen

The Virtual Life of a Teen

Have you ever heard of a game called ‘Spin the blunt?’

I had the great misfortune of being introduced to this new age updated version of spin the bottle that we sometimes played when I was a young man, by my 18-year-old daughter Heaven, one afternoon on Facebook.

I was basically reading her virtual diary – her Facebook status updates – when I stumbled upon an update that both intrigued me and made my heart sink into my chest…

It seems that this next generation of teens has gotten so comfortable living their life in full view of the globe that Heaven had no problem sharing with the world – and her dad – that she was not only playing ‘spin the blunt,’ but was also now a pothead.

As any parent, I ran the full gamut of emotions from heartbreak and disappointment, to anger and rage. But after a few hours I came to the realization that I needed to place the same effort into speaking to my daughter about the negative affects of drugs, as I do every time I lecture teens across the country.

When I got her on the phone, in a calm tone, the conversation went something like this, “If I ever and I mean ever find out your driving under the influence of marijuana, that precious little car of yours that your parents pay for will be confiscated and sold at auction. No ifs, ands or buts about it… And by the way… smoking weed makes you slow…”

I thought I handled myself quite well – like the ultra-liberal parent I pride myself in being.

It was interesting that when I posed the question to my Facebook family a few weeks ago about what they’d like to see me write about next on this blog, they overwhelmingly voted in favor of a b
log suggested by Noel Ramos.

Noel was asking that I write about the affects of Facebook, My Space and other social networking sites on our youth.

The suggestion brought me right back to a year ago when I was volunteering at the Next Generation Center in the South Bronx. After 3 weeks of getting comfortable with the teens, a teen named Jesus, more affectionately known as Chuchi, had finally let his guard down enough to tell me that his friend had been killed over a My Space beef.

Honestly, it isn’t easy to shock me… But the realization that one of his closest friends had been murdered over ‘tough talk’ on My Space, and the sad fact that he held him as he took his laugh breath, was enough to reduce me to tears of anger as he cried and told me the story of watching his friend die over nothing.

And although he wasn’t ready to write in detail about his friends passing, he did touch on the subject just a bit when he wrote his first ever blog titled, “My Space Gangsters Learn Real Life Lessons…”

It was part of the “Unwritten Life,” blog series I was creating with the teens in order to give them a voice and an outlet to blog about what life is really like in the hood.

No actors here, no writers, directors or producers saying, “Be more street…” or “They don’t talk like this son… they talk like this homie…”

No, this was real talk and real writing from the teens that were surviving on these streets everyday, learning real life lessons about what happens when you take social networking and bring that consequence to the real streets, the same streets where even real gangsters have Facebook and My Space pages professing their allegiance to the gangs.

I recalled speaking to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in the offices of Urban Latino about these new issues our teens were facing, only to see him go on camera fifteen minutes later and speak word-for-word about what I’d just educated him about, as if he’d experienced the pain himself.

I suppose that’s why they call them politicians… it was of no great consequence to me, because the message was bigger than me, so I let it go in hopes that he’d use his position of power to spread awareness about this new epidemic.

My job was to continue to get the teens to open up and write the pain out of their hearts and onto the virtual paper known as the world wide web of blogging… Let’s call it the blogosphere.

Unfortunately, I was sad to discover recently that the statistics being put out by the Pew Internet Project about Social Media and Young Adults, in which they’ve discovered that the numbers from 2006 to 2009, have seen a decrease in the number of teens, ages 12 – 17, blogging from 28% (2006) to 14 – 15% in 2010.

That’s almost a 50% drop in the number of teens being represented through the written word on the Internet.

It seems that we’ve fallen back into that age old adage of erasing our stories from the history books before they’re every truly read and spoken about.

In another PEW study, it is stated that over 93% of Americans between the ages of 12 to 17 are using the Internet, with almost 73% of those teens accessing social networking sites.

That’s a really, really big audience that needs to be catered to and educated in so many ways, protected and pushed along in a progressive manner.

When I was thinking about all of the teens that drop of out school, as high as 80% in some poorer congressional districts, it became apparent to me that we’re truly not keeping the students engaged.

These are teens that are using Nintendo DS’s before they can make a sentence; they grow into preteens who spend more time communicating virtually than physically. And they are far more technologically advanced than that of our generation.

Place a hardcover, 500 page book in front of them and attempt to teach them in black and white… It’s no wonder they fall asleep in class and just stop showing up. They can get all of that information on Wikipedia for Christ sake.

Until we can find a way to incorporate technology in every classroom, for every educational opportunity we will continue to fall further and further behind other countries in regards to the education of our students.

For all the negatives surrounding social networking and our teenagers, there are far more positives – in my opinion – that should force us to use these as vehicles of success and not failure.

I tell the teens I speak to all the time that my book was discovered on a major level on My Space, that I’ve made more networking opportunities on Facebook in an afternoon, than I ever could’ve made attending 1,000 networking mixers in person.

I also explain to them that the opportunity for them to represent themselves and their work professionally utilizing these social networking platforms is truly limitless. But I remind them that their My Space and Facebook page is a direct representation of who they are.

When I was looking for work in New York as I prepared to relocate, I had a recruiter ask me to remove my Facebook and My Space pages. He said a simple Google of my name led them to those sites which had my book plastered all over them.

So I asked him what the problem was… his reply was that the description of my book, "Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx,” explained that I was an ex-drug dealer and hoodlum and that I’d never find work with that as my past history.

I told him, I’d find work on my own… But it was an interesting learning experience for me. And one we all have to educate our teens about…

Beginning with me telling my precious little first born, Heaven that there should be, “No more posts of ‘spin the blunt,” as you prepare to go to college and enter the working world my love…”

Our virtual life… has now become our real life.

Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on several new books about NY Latinos. He is also the co-host of Rebel Radio on Urban Latino Radio.


  1. My kids were almost adults when social networking hit it big. I warned them about college admissions and later about prospective employers checking them out on the internet. Towards the end of my younger daughter's college days, I googled her name and was led straight to her myspace page. Her "friend's" posts outraged me and we had another long talk. My timing was good because a few days later there were news stories about people being fired from their jobs because of negative and lewd posts on myspace. Parenting never stops.

  2. Eileen, it’s something we simply don’t think about and don’t speak about enough in regards to our lives being out there in full view for perspective employers to see. Now we are being pre-judged due to a bad day on Facebook… So imagine how the odds are stacked against us now? Of course, we should take this as a lesson to be careful what we put out there… but isn’t everyone entitled to a bad day? Or do we need to be on our best behavior at all times in order to not offend our future or even current bosses for that matter?

  3. Ivan, this is a fantastic blog. I believe you hit this right on! We should definately use this to our advantage as a positive tool. I agree that not all should be placed on FB/MYSPACE for all to see, as there should be some level of privacy all teens and Adults should learn to respect. I am glad this has come up and hopefullt opens more discussions how we can use these site to our advantage. Thank you for a great blog!
    Noel Ramos