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How to Talk to a Young Person About Internet Safety Without Feeling Like an Old Fogie

Ever since moving back to the States and interacting much more with young adults in my day-to-day life, I have had to keep myself up-to-date with Internet culture more than usual. I explore Instagram like a archeologist, let Buzzfeed tell me what memes are relevant, and Jonathan Van Ness informs my lexicon.

For the most part, it’s all lighthearted and fun, except when alarming trends pop up out of nowhere on my feed. And I find myself having to bite my tongue about it all because absolutely no one wants my hot take on it. I am 23, which is basically 53, in this brave, new modern world.

But if you love someone and want to protect them, you say something. And I have a particular calling to speak into the lives of young women and girls, because I believe in their potential and power. And I feel equally passionate about denouncing the things that strip them of that in our patriarchal, predatory society.

So I’ve written you a script that you can feel confident using as you tell a younger, beloved person about the perils of this modern life without sounding like that Steve Buscemi 30 Rock bit.

(This is me, always.)

“Dear __________*

*INSERT NAME of your recipient of this rant. As a very young millennial or GenZ, it is either a made-up name like Kaelyenne or Christeth or it is a very old name that has no business being given a second chance like Orpah or Rahab. All beautiful and otherworldly, like Billie Eilish.*

I know you are infinitely cooler than I. You know how to style a crop top while I have just been accidentally wearing them (ie. shrunken high school camp shirts I refuse to throw out). You have apps on your phone that tell you when apps on my phone are no longer used by young people (I will give up Facebook Messenger over my dead body). You never went through an awkward phase because Youtube tutorials taught you how to use makeup while all I had at your age was the clearance section of CVS Maybelline and a prayer. You are much more knowledgable and tolerant about social issues and I had to find out that “gay” shouldn’t be used as an insult by this infamous Hilary Duff PSA. You are more tech-savvy, more exposed to different ideas and cultures, and absolutely, absolutely intimidating.

I still don’t really understand what kombucha is and your trendy friends are scarier to me than writing a speech for UNICEF. But I love you.

This is ultimately a love letter to you. A love letter to the child you were and the woman you’ll become and the glorious, messy in-between. Britney Spears said it best when she sang her haunting ode “not a girl, not yet a woman.”

I know you don’t want to hear from me- a walking paranoid Liz Lemon.

I am essentially a sentient school assembly given by a well-meaning, dorky public speaker imploring you to believe in yourself and just say no to drugs. Because I, along with other Millennials, grew up with social media. At its birth, we were all excited and Facebook “poking” each other like idiots; now we’re hardened and desensitized to the quotidian sexuality and violence that lives in our pockets with us and have our fair share of regrets.

More than that, I am also someone who worked with survivors of cybersex trafficking- innocent babies, children, and teenagers exploited online. While in the Philippines, the majority of victims are exploited by their own relatives, it wasn’t unheard of that a teenager was exploited through an unknown predator online who had groomed them for months. I’ve seen the underbelly of the internet and it is not self-expression or First Amendment rights or empowerment; it’s horrific.

So yes, whenever I see something you or your peers post of your adolescent bodies in provocative, suggestive poses, I want to cry. Because I don’t see just you. I also see the face of a teenager being told that she’s being put in the government’s care, separated from her family, until her case goes through the legal system. I see her anger and confusion, that she thought the materials she was creating were innocent and only meant for one person’s eyes, but in fact, were exploited and put her in danger. I see the faces of the girls in my own high school whose intimate photos given to someone they trusted were sold to a foreign porn website, forever gone from their control, forever being owned by someone profiting from their innocence. I see threatening comments and ruthless bullying and boys clicking “save”, turning a fleeting moment into a nightmare.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am the staunchest feminist you will find. I was brought up on Cheetah Girls, Oprah, and The Awakening. I hope you know that I support every dream you have, every aspiration you reach for, even every embarrassing stage you go through ((for you shall never live down the One Direction fanfic stage, I will bring it up at your wedding)). You are full of infinite potential and power.

This isn’t about stamping out your femininity or restraining your sexuality. Because while for you, posting that sexy pic while you’re still a minor may seem like self-expression or art or creativity or you’re proud that you’re gorgeous or you’re looking for affirmation or you want that cute guy to notice you or it’s Tuesday and you’re bored. These are all fine and natural things. In an ideal world, you should be able to live in freedom without fear of a rape threat on your Facebook, or a friend request by a creepy old man, or a group chat in which strangers pose as teenagers. But we don’t live in this world and we are smart enough not to act like it either. To predators who use social media to hunt, to destroy, to exploit, we won’t give them an open door. We won’t let them take our power; in fact, we will do everything we can to stop them from assuming they can even try.

I love that your generation has beaten cigarettes at their own game. You have realized that Big Tobacco has profited on poisoning lungs and ruining lives and your generation has said no more. We’re smart enough to see their exploitation and if we don’t buy into their industry, they die with all the other sins of the past.

Social media is the same. Find your safe alternatives. Find your medium of self-expression. Keep within the boundaries that allow you freedom in what you share while still protecting you ((yes, this exists)), because I believe in the value of your thoughts, experiences, and creativity.

But for the love of God, let’s call evil what it is. We will not feed it simply because it shows us a false reality of sexy photos as beauty, provocation as a tool for adolescence under the age of 18, nudity as asexual art on your personal Instagram page.

I love you. That’s all.

Whew, now that that’s out of the way, let’s go back to being friends and making fun of those who really deserve it….ill-informed old people à la this classic SNL skit.

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