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Petri: What the pope got wrong about kids

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

The pope might be infallible, but he is not correct.

Pope Francis has laid down another pronouncement, this time about the Internet. According to Reuters, he told some altar servers that “maybe many young people waste too many hours on futile things.” What are those futile things? According to His Holiness, they include: “chatting on the Internet or with smartphones, watching TV soap operas, and [using] the products of technological progress, which should simplify and improve the quality of life, but distract attention away from what is really important.”

As The Post’s Caitlin Dewey points out on The Intersect blog, this makes limited sense: The Internet is where the pope himself is to be found, tweeting merrily away. I get most of my pope-related news from the Internet. Don’t bite the hand that BuzzFeeds you.

But beyond that, these are not futile things. These are the things teenage life is made of. That glowing screen is the last ship to the mainland of traditional adolescence.

After a mother was arrested for letting her child go to the park alone, Slate conducted a survey of more than 6,000 readers and discovered that, loosely speaking, kids these days are not allowed to do anything.

Kids’ daily schedules go something like this:

• Wake up at top of high, fortified tower in nice suburban neighborhood.

• Allow mother to climb down hair.

• Tutors come to home, offer eight hours of prescribed activities, including but not limited to flute practice, SAT prep, AP classes and Future Leaders of America club.

• Mother climbs back up hair and administers six vocabulary quizzes.

And that does not even include serving at the altar.

Unstructured time is something that kids do not have. They can’t set foot unsupervised in the neighborhood. The best-case scenario is that the neighbors will just post something judgy about their parents on the community parent message board. The worst-case scenario is that the parent gets thrown behind bars.

Danah Boyd, who has studied teen social interactions using the Internet, writes in her book “It’s Complicated” that “today’s teenagers have less freedom to wander than any previous generation. Many middle-class teenagers once grew up with the option to ‘do whatever you please, but be home by dark.’ While race, socioeconomic class, and urban and suburban localities shaped particular dynamics of childhood, walking or bicycling to school was ordinary, and gathering with friends in public or commercial places – parks, malls, diners, parking lots, and so on – was commonplace. ... Fear often dictates the edges of mobility.”

Consequently, teens have to make up for this lost face time online. Boyd goes on to note: “Most youth aren’t turning to social media because they can’t resist the lure of technology. They’re responding to a social world in which adults watch and curtail their practices and activities, justifying their protectionism as being necessary for safety. Social media has become an outlet for many youth, an opportunity to reclaim some sense of agency and have some semblance of social power. It has provided a window into society and an outlet for hanging out that these teens didn’t even know they had lost.”

Yes, socializing on the Internet poses its own problems. The Internet is like an elephant: It never forgets, and you should not invite it to underage drinking parties. But it’s one of the last dimensions where teenagers can interact freely and reclaim some space for themselves.

Yet plenty of people seem to take the dim papal view of online activity. Once you hit 30, the activities of the youth online become a subject of distress. And true, it is easy to feel a little curmudgeonly when everyone else around the dinner table is staring into a 3-inch screen.

But it’s not a harmful addiction or a futile thing. It’s where your friends are. It’s a mall you carry in your pocket, not just in the sense that it is possible to purchase a sweater there. It’s where you can just hang out.

And every time someone such as the pope describes this as a harmful addiction, the walls close in.

Kids are contained enough. Must we add to their rigid schedules the panicked injunction “Also no Internet because strangers and ‘To Catch a Predator’ and cyberbullies and Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows’ and so forth, and, furthermore, the pope says so”?

I hope not.

• Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com.

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