Be part of creating a safe space for all teens Print
Youth Column
Written by Karen Osborne, Catholic News Service   
Thursday, Apr. 17, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

What's the most important thing a teen can have? A smartphone, a driver's license, or a date to the prom? A magic wand that does your homework when you wave it?

I would argue that the most important thing a teenager can have is a safe space, where he or she feels free to share feelings, hopes, and dreams without fear of ridicule or recrimination.

This can be found in a physical item, such a journal, or it can be a class or club where the person feels accepted and understood: the school newspaper, theater, forensics, or the football team.

One of my most important safe spaces as a teenager was my church youth group. My youth minister was supportive and encouraging. We always felt safe asking questions about what it was like to be Catholic in a secular world.

A friend who is a youth minister recently told me that the teenagers she works with have stopped talking in class and at retreats. They wouldn't talk in small groups or share their feelings about faith with the other kids. At first, she didn't know why. They would voluntarily silence themselves in a way she'd never experienced. Worried, she took the teenagers aside, one by one, asking them why they were so quiet all the time.

The answer was telling: The teens were scared that their classmates would surreptitiously film their comments about their Catholic faith and religion, and put them online for the ridicule of the entire school. It had happened before and the teens were afraid of it happening again. Instead of participating, their response was to remain silent, to disengage and to drop out of the conversation.

Mobile devices have created a world in which no space is safe at a time when teens need safe spaces the most.

I was teased in front of a class of 20. I can't imagine what it would be like to grow up in a world where I'm teased by the world. It would be terrifying to be muffled and silenced because technology provides a means to violate crucial trust, privacy and safety.

This isn't just cyberbullying. We don't need crazy government conspiracy theories because we already are living in a surveillance state, one we control and police all by ourselves.

Some people would say that the answer would be to shut off mobile phones entirely, to take them away. I'm not sure that's the right response. In the right hands, a mobile phone can change the world for the better. The technology is here and it is not going away. What we need is to learn how to be respectful and responsible users of technology.

Teens need to be courageous. Now is the time to engage with the world, to speak up and talk about all of the ideas and questions bubbling up inside of you no matter what your friends are doing with their smartphones.

Don't let fear control your life. Don't engage with mean texts and don't share videos meant to hurt and bully. Bullies like having an audience. Don't be a part of creating a mean audience, in person or online.

If you're part of a support group for teens, be more aware of how technology affects their lives and be ready to give them strategies to better deal with problems. It takes a little more work to create safe spaces these days, but it's absolutely necessary.

Karen Dietlein Osborne contributes to “Coming of Age,” a CNS column series for and about youth. She is a staff writer for the Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y..


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