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This Is The Story We Need To Stop Telling About Teens And The Internet

Most adults have no idea what teens are actually doing online. That's a problem.

Technology is bad for you. Social media is destroying your communication skills. We hear these warnings repeatedly echoed in the media, and the past few weeks have been no exception.

Recently, CNN and “Anderson Cooper 360” teamed up to explore the “hidden digital world” by collecting data from the various social media accounts of 13-year-olds. The report reads as a case study for an exotic, alien species found in the wild -- one that suffers from the social dangers of “lurking” online and FOMO (that’d be “fear of missing out”). According to CNN, this is #Being13.

“Most adolescents with access to smart phones are living their social lives online as much as they do face-to-face,” reads the report. “Adults worry that teens are hooked on social media, but most have no idea what teens are actually doing online.”

Read that again: Most adults have no idea what teens are actually doing online. Most adults don’t understand the way teens use the Internet and are therefore convinced that it is "bad" for you the same way you might tell someone smoking cigarettes, frying your skin in a tanning bed and eating McDonald's every day isn’t a great idea. That’s a problem.

It’s a problem that we continue to look at “online life” and “life” as two separate entities when in fact they are now synonymous. Generation Z literally doesn’t know what it’s like to not have a cell phone, but because that’s not how previous generations were raised, we condemn it. As Liz Perle, the Emerging Trends & Teens lead at Instagram, points out in response to a recent New York Times op-ed, “We are obsessed with narratives that separate the two because that's how most adults have experienced it. And we almost always leave out online-only relationships and communities of teenagers entirely from the conversation.”

What’s misleading about pieces like the ones found in the Times and CNN, is that while they are quick to chastise teens for being glued to their screens, they fail to highlight what they’re actually using the screens for. Sure, they’re Snapping their trip to Disney World or Instagramming their In-N-Out burger (honestly, it’d be a crime not to), but it’s much more than that.

The examples are endless when it comes to social media producing good, whether it’s helping a teen girl during her eating disorder recovery or shining a light on the transgender community as Miley Cyrus has done. There are groundbreaking coming out videos; ones that combat mental illness stigma and smash unrealistic beauty standards.

Yet for all the benefits social media has to offer, as a culture, we’re still hell-bent on looking for opportunities where we can shame young people and how they use it. We target sorority girls taking selfies at baseball games and teens mourning the death of a popular 13-year-old YouTuber on Periscope, despite the live-streaming platform providing a community for teens to virtually lean on each other during a tragic time.

Last week, a photo of a device-free older woman at a movie premiere went viral. Amidst a sea of iPhones, it’s a powerful image. It’s supposed to serve as a reminder to all of us social media-obsessives to *~live in the moment~*. 

But I look at that photo through an alternative lens. Yes, spectators at the premiere (which largely consisted of adults -- not teens) were using their phones, but that doesn’t have to mean they weren’t present. Both the woman and other fans were enjoying the moment -- it was just being preserved differently. And just because it’s different, it doesn’t make it wrong.

So, CNN, what's “Being 13”? Thirteen is badass, game-changing young girls like Rowan Blanchard. Thirteen is giggling and taking selfies with your friends. Thirteen is being on Tumblr and learning about feminism. It's tweeting at someone who lives halfway around the world about the latest episode of “Scream Queens.” It’s watching coming out videos on YouTube and maybe not feeling so alone. It’s creating meaningful friendships, conversations and connections that aren’t necessarily happening face-to-face. And that’s because they don’t need to be.  

That’s being 13 -- and that’s also life.