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Kids looking for fame in all the wrong places

May 5, 2008


"Make these 17 seconds good, come on!" These are the words of a teenage girl referring to the memory left on the digital camera that recorded the now infamous "cheerleader beat-down." The video documents and records a 16-year-old girl in Lakeside, Fla., who is held against her will and beaten for supposedly spreading rumors on MySpace. The video has "gone viral" - being viewed by an already anxious adult public as further evidence that kids who grow up digital are willing to do anything to become famous.


In a sense, it's an old story: Kids have always wanted to be famous. There is nothing new about the hairbrush as microphone, movie scenes memorized, or the back yard as Yankee Stadium in October. The wish for fame bubbles up from the youthful imagination, floats on thin air and then gently pops when the song ends, the DVD skips or mom yells that it is time to come inside for dinner.


But, as the "cheerleader beat-down" video illustrates, there is one difference for kids growing up digital: The fame bubbles still float, but they don't go pop.


There are lessons to be learned from this video. Parents need to build a better technology relationship with their children. Analog adults must get tech-friendly and curious about their children's desire for digital fame. This requires parents wrapping their minds around the good and the bad of kids' striving for fame in these days of social network sites, reality television, cell-phone cameras and self-broadcasting.


Kids are excited about the new technology because it breaks old media rules. This particularly appeals to those who think they have a unique voice and don't like being hemmed in by cookie cutter rules (read most kids). Add to this appeal, the fact that this generation is developing a new medium in real time as they grow up. They are so busy playing with the tools that they barely notice they are developing a new form of communication along the way. In these phenomena there is good news: Kids are developing their own voices and are gaining critical technology literacy skills in the process.


The bad is equally apparent: kids' desire for fame used to perpetuate harm themselves or others.


New forms of communication allow kids to get attention by hurting and exploiting in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago. In this age of being-famous-for-being-famous, it is growing increasingly difficult to understand the difference between aspiring to be famous and grabbing attention regardless of the consequences. While the Internet makes it easier for kid's voices to be heard, it's not guaranteed that they have a skill or talent that they are ready to show to the world. Yet they still want to say something, and instinctively kids know that there is always a market for fear, sexual exploitation, harassment and violence.


Parents want to encourage the good and stop the bad. To make this happen, it takes the right attitude with the goal of building a positive technology relationship. Parents can't come at this from a place of ignorance or hating technology. To encourage the good, parents have to research the technology and understand their child's particular flavor of wanting fame. This will help set the stage for a positive conversation about the pitfalls of fame in the digital age.


Here are some practical tips for after parents have become informed and educated:


1. Ask Before Uploading. It is necessary for families to have clear guidelines about what is appropriate for their children to upload. School-aged kids should always ask before uploading and for teens, similar to taking the car out, everyone needs to be on the same page about uploading rights and responsibilities.


2. If It Is That Good, Then It Will Still Be That Good In The Morning: For kids of all ages (and many adults), trying to slow down before going public on the Internet is an important lesson to learn.


3. Organize And Digitize Family Videos And Pictures: Make this a parent-child collaborative project. Parents should solicit help (which they will probably need) and learn the process of digitizing and uploading.


4. Family Internet Night: Get together and have kids put on a slide show or video of what they are doing online. Younger kids might just lead a tour of their favorite Web sites, and older kids can pick areas of their social network sites that they feel comfortable sharing with parents. Parents should ask lots of questions while at the same time not turning it into an inquisition.


5. Know The Audience And Set Limited Engagements: Some posts might be appropriate for a bigger audience while others might be better kept within a small group. Some sites are appropriate for younger kids and some for teens. All kids should keep track of what has been posted and be encouraged to only leave things online for short periods of time.


Let's face facts: The childhood desire for fame and the technology that they consume like oxygen are here to stay. Parents need to realize that it's not about pulling the plug on video games, the Internet and cell phones - it's about finding ways to plug in.


Jason Brand is a family therapist with a technology background who specializes in bridging the screen divide.

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