There are no positive spaces on the Internet.

I’m sure I’m not only speaking for myself, when I say that 2020 was an isolating year. The shut-downs began in mid-March in my area and, despite my Gramma constantly quoting Trump’s claims that we’d be “wide open by Easter,” it wasn’t long before I was beginning to realize this wasn’t going away until we had a vaccine.

I worked the last Sunday the library was open, March 15th. We closed for two weeks, which quickly turned to three, then four, then six. Fortunately for my husband and I, my library system paid every single employee their full pay and benefits and didn’t even assign us any work, while we were at home. I was luckier than most in my field… than most in general. Regardless, this all happened on the heels of some really difficult personal issues and suddenly… I was all alone. Jake is an essential worker and never had a single shutdown-related day off, which was certainly for the best in the long run, but in the short-term, sort of just left… me, dealing with some really tough stuff during a pandemic.

Those days have mostly blurred in my mind. They were a series of Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart trips for presumed essentials, because the idea of not having access to something was freaking me out almost as much as the rising virus cases. They were hours of playing Netflix in the background, while obsessively reading the news. They were endless walks around the neighborhood, accompanied by audiobooks. They were pings from apps about the rising cases and paranoia that my job wouldn’t be there when this all ended. Mostly, though, they were lonely. I’d gone from seeing my teens three days a week, to not knowing when I’d ever see them again. I’d gone from having family nights and weekends, dropping in on Taco Tuesday with my pals from the West Side Library, seeing friends and coworkers daily, attending meetings and breakroom potlucks, to the occasional text message conversation and talks with my Gramma that always ended when it got political. Easter was spent at home, with Jake, attempting to enjoy a beloved family holiday with a Sad Ham for two and a Zoom call with my family. Not that the rest of the year was leagues closer to normalcy, but the solitude of those six weeks, even for a proud homebody, was devastating.

It’s been about three and a half years since I deleted my Facebook account, a decision I’d advocate for most and March of 2020 was the first time I’ve ever genuinely considered returning. At least with Facebook, I’d be able to connect with family, see their updates, message them, and maybe feel a little less alone during a pandemic. Then I remembered my previous social networking experiences and thought about all of the political articles, rants, and conspiracy theories I’d be treated to, by both my extremely left and extremely right family members, who have little to no understanding of basic social media etiquette.

I thought about the time my crazy redneck uncle told my high school friend that he wasn’t “no better than” him, just because he had a “two dollar degree”… without knowing that this man had no more than a high school education and was a former marine. I thought about the digital slap fights between women who didn’t even know each other in high school, let alone today and the family gossip based entirely on speculation from social media posts. I thought about the mommy wars and the inevitable comments about how women without children had no idea how hard all of this could be, the comparisons of busy schedules and stress. I noted how awesome it was that, after three years, my family had finally accepted that I was no longer on social media and every piece of news, from family parties to family deaths, was going to have to be delivered over the phone… as it should be, and I didn’t want to ruin that progress. It was already a difficult year and all of the above were not going to make me feel better. So, in lieu of social media, I clung to strangers like a lifeline, through various subreddits.

I started with a subreddit that I’d previously frequented in phases, one populated by somewhat traditional women, that focused on dating and improving your marriage. At first it was fun and I felt like I was socializing with real people. Then… it turned and comments were made about how women shouldn’t work if they have children and women who didn’t want them would live lives full of regret, so I wrote a snarky comment about how the subreddit was no longer for me and left.

Next, I tried to connect with my fellow librarians, since I missed interacting on a professional basis at work. This was probably my second to briefest attempt to connect through Reddit, because libraries can be politically toxic, ironic for a profession rooted in serving all. By ironic, I mean wildly hypocritical. After ignoring the inevitable politics in posts and comments for a few weeks, I saw one directed at teen readers advisory. That’s totally my jam… or so I thought. This post was from a straight, white man, asking for book recommendations that starred straight, white boys, who were progressive and inclusive and championed their minority friends, be they Black, gay, trans, what-have-you. The comments were filled with criticism about how boys should be able to look up to female leads and tangents about how books have historically only starred boys. Riiiiiight, but do we really want the only male heroes young boys look up to to be the kids from Lord of the Flies? Boys should make do with female leads, even though you’re arguing the reverse is a disservice? Are we not allowed to have role models that everyone can see themselves in, or is it just white males? Aside from these terrible arguments, there were entirely unrelated rants about the lack of representation of lesbians in YA fiction and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to talk about helping teens, all of them, not just the ones that made my resume look or gave me conference talking points. I just wanted to bond over the profession I’d missed and in just a few weeks, Reddit had made me want to leave it altogether.

So, I decided to try something a little lighter in the Gilmore Girls thread. What could possibly go wrong in sharing a fandom?!?!? Y’all, in 2020 I learned that all fandoms be fucking crazy. People wrote pages about how every single character was abusive or narcissistic or sociopathic or ::insert WebMD diagnosis here:: for fucking Gilmore Girls. They attacked me for saying I thought Melissa McCarthy’s modern-day projects were crass, for thinking Dean was alright in the early seasons, for liking Emily… and they fought each other over the exact same topics, viciously. Really?!?! Am I the only one who thinks that I shouldn’t have to thicken my 2020 raw skin to discuss Gilmore Girls?!?! But folks, I’ll tell you… it was nothing compared to the Harry Potter fandom.

I made it a day, y’all. I made it one day in the Harry Potter subreddit, before someone tore into more for a very mild defense about how Draco Malfoy was just a kid and a pawn to his family. The response was a half-page long and went on about how when this person was a teenager, they knew better than to do the things Draco did, that they weren’t bullies, because they were more self-aware. Instead of replying that they might not have been bullies as teenagers, but certainly were now, or writing a lengthy comparison to the Malfoys and organized crime families, I deleted my comment, left the feed, and never returned. Apparently the Harry Potter subreddit is moderated by Lord Voldemort, himself.

In the meantime, even the subs I followed for some light pick-me-ups, like r/interestingasfuck and r/aww and r/crafts became hostile. I stumbled on an anti-Catholic rant in comments, others about how people who won’t let their dogs sit on the couch were abusive, and when I shared a photo of an art project my library teens did, someone left multiple comments about how I could have done it differently and it could have been improved.

Finally, r/romancebooks, which had been a surprisingly fun and accepting space over the course of a few months, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Previously, tastes ranged from Pride and Prejudice to rapey drug dealer porn and all were accepted, if not shared. Then Bridgerton hit and newbie fans to the genre joined, lacking an understanding of how very many sub-genres it possessed, and the judgement sky-rocketed. Even authors only a few steps off the beaten path, like Kristen Ashley and Joanna Wylde, were being vilified for “romanticizing abuse” and posters were theorizing about how the authors themselves must have horrible personal lives and joking about egging their houses. Excuse me, but has anyone ever checked in on George R. R. Martin’s sister, to make sure she hasn’t been sold to rapey horse lords? How about Stephen King’s kids? Are we worried they might have been butchered by some ancient folklore creature? No? Then I guess it’s only women we judge for their art and men get a pass. After another poster began harassing me on my last post, I’d had it. I rage quit Reddit. I deleted every username and installed blocking software on my laptop, phone, and workstation computer, so I couldn’t even browse absent-mindedly without a username.

After the Reddit debacle, I searched for a replacement, but all of the less popular forums seemed just as hostile. I even messaged a friend and asked, point-blank, “Are there any good, supportive forums online, or is everyone a jerk?” Her immediate response was “Everyone’s a jerk.” This was the same friend who tearfully messaged me when someone called her a bad mom for working, on a Dave Ramsey Facebook post. I had to point out that this woman was clearly not spending her time engaging in interactive puppet shows, if she was tearing down other moms on Facebook.

Twitter was out, because I thought I couldn’t possibly care less about celebrities. Their Covid-19 Poor Little Rich People attempts to relate to the common man proved me wrong. Instagram is just as bad as Facebook, unsurprisingly as they’re both owned by Mark Zuckerberg and are notorious for causing FOMO and body issues and just general judgement toward all women. The only perk to Instagram is the lesser degree of political commentary and even that can crop up seemingly out of nowhere. Even BoredPanda, a feel-good site with articles about cute little animals, is politically out of control in the comments. Why can’t I look at pictures of kittens in peace?!?!

So, I finally accepted the truth, at 33 years old: there are no supportive spaces on the Internet. Adults will forever lecture kids and teenagers about cyber bullying, as they type out hateful messages to people they should be building up, on Instagram and Twitter and Reddit and Facebook.

I left Facebook years ago and I’m reminded that I had the right idea, as I not only feel less criticized and frustrated without any of it, but have more time to do the things I actually care about, like read and sew and work on my digital photo albums. Hopefully, that list will soon include interactions with Real Live People, so I won’t feel the need to grasp for human connection online. At the very least, however, I now have more time to entertain Future Belle and you people.

Teenagers are Starved

… for attention, structure, and loving authority figures. It’s not always reflected through school shootings, stabbings on behalf of Slenderman, or torturing animals in YouTube videos, either. Those are just the most sensational stories. No, more often than not, it’s young girls sending nude photos to boys, so they’ll keep talking to them. It’s 5th grade boys vaping so the older kids will think they’re cool. It’s widespread porn addiction, because they don’t understand how their bodies work or what these feelings mean and they have all the stimulation they could possibly desire in their pockets. It’s indiscriminate sexual experimentation, before they’re old enough to handle the physical and emotional complications. It’s the expectation that the latter will look like the former, because no one is talking to them.

While many have spent the past week, arguing about gun control with strangers online, as opposed to… I don’t know, looking at cat videos and posting photos of their coffee, like they do the rest of the time, their children are still floundering. The country is positively baffled as to why kids act the way they do and not one of them realize that we’re so busy arguing with each other, that none of us are actually guiding teenagers. Adolescence is one of the most confusing times in a person’s life and it always has been. The hot debates of gun control, bullying, and sexual education aren’t new. Mean Girls and body shaming aren’t new. Teenage boys using teenage girls and telling the whole school isn’t new. What is new, is the constant distraction in the lives of everyone who is supposed to care for these kids.

honest

Today, if parents aren’t too busy swiping left and right on dating apps, rediscovering themselves after the divorce, then they’re on Facebook, debating car seat safety and vaccines with someone from high school that they don’t even know or like. They’re thumbing through Pinterest recipes in the drive through line, instead of talking to their children about their day while sliding a frozen lasagna in the oven. It’s not entirely their fault, either. We live in a society that shares everything from day altering information, such as school closures, to life altering information, such as engagements and the deaths of loved ones, via social networking. If you delete Facebook and Pinterest, you’re considered antisocial or an isolationist, and I should know, here in my fourth month without either.

Dad: “You know your uncle’s mom died, though.”
Me: “Nope… not on Facebook”
Dad: “Oh, that’s right! Well, your uncle’s mom died.”

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It’s not just parents who’ve detached, either. Teachers, once a source of love and affection, are now so petrified of ending up on the news, that they won’t even hug their students… and that’s if they even have the time to connect with them emotionally, after the ludicrously detailed lesson planning, IEP meetings, and professional development days. The same is true of youth ministers and counselors and even librarians. Keep the door open and keep your hands to yourself or risk destroying your life.

As a result of our collective detachment from our youth, teens test boundaries, just as they always have, but… they find none. They use their phones in class and their teachers don’t dare confiscate them, for fear of parental wrath. Whereas once it was enough to be able to call the school and leave an important message for one’s child, we must now have instant access to everyone in our lives, just in case we realize they’ve deleted our DVR’d episodes of The Bachelor and we want to share our unhappiness. The reverse is true as well. Even 10 years ago, a child who forgot his homework would have to beg his teacher for an extension and ultimately learn to be more responsible; now he can text mom and beg her to drop it off on her only break. If she doesn’t, then lord have mercy on the teacher who dares to grade him down for it, teaching him only that there are no limits, no consequences.

It’s cyclical, even. We’re all so very exhausted, because we refuse to acknowledge the emotional energy expended in keeping up with 153 friends, and 12 different news feeds, that we relish the moments the young ones in our lives are distracted by technology, plugging them in the second they can respond to an iPad, in part because it’s a societal norm. As a result, we don’t see what it’s doing to them until it’s too late and we feel powerless to police their usage after years of such access and the privacy that came with the adults not caring what was on the screen, if it would only keep them quiet. As a result, such personal technology has become ubiquitous in middle school and beyond, so the parent who does refuse to gift their child with a smartphone, hobbles them academically, when every other student in class has internet access and therefore, the lesson plans begin to require it. No exaggeration, I never used my undergrad to teach in an official capacity, but I substitute taught in over 100 different classrooms in six years and increasingly saw kids without devices at a clear disadvantage.

This past Christmas, my five-year-old nephew spent all of dinner longing for Minecraft on his iPad, completely disinterested in the prospect of family time or even presents, because of technology and that’s the norm, with kids and their parents. We are wasting our lives staring at screens and teaching children to do the same. We spend hours a week keeping up with people we neither know nor care about, arguing with people whose opinions will never change, occasionally even finding ourselves in affairs with our marriages in shambles, as a result of an effort to feel another superficial connection, because we have no real connections in our lives and while we’re undoubtedly suffering as well, our kids are most definitely suffering. I say ours, because they are ours. Every society is judged on how it’s weakest and most impressionable members are treated and while we argue with each other online about the ways we’ve failed them, we are continuing to fail them.

I’m not asking anyone for perfection or even claiming to know what that looks like. I’m not insisting you can’t have a healthy relationship with technology, simply that many do not and the teachers, youth ministers, librarians, or other supportive authority figures aren’t capable of truly picking up the slack. Restore the balance, put down your phone/tablet/laptop, and ask the kids in your life about their day, because the general struggles of youth aren’t new, but being completely ignored by the adults in their lives who are supposed to care is… and perhaps if our children can go home from a hostile environment to a warm and involved one, once again, they’ll learn to cope with their emotions in non-hostile ways. As an advocate for teens and a former neglected teen, I am telling you, no matter how flawed we might all be, the most important thing we can possibly do for these kids is be present and force them to be present.

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