Guest Post: Radical Parenting’s Vanessa Van Petten on how social networking saves teens from isolation

Vanessa Van Petten, creator of Radical Parenting, does what too few do: she gives teens a place to speak in their own voices. In particular, the teens at Radical Parenting offer parents insight and advice into adolescents and their culture.

Vanessa’s new book, Do I Get My Allowance Before Or After I’m Grounded?, comes out tomorrow. In it, she offers ways for parents to talk to and connect with their teens on a variety of hot-button topics, from sex and drugs to social networking.

To celebrate the release of the book, Vanessa offered Backward Messages an excerpt that touches on one of our core issues — goth culture, and the discrimination many goths face for choosing to stand apart stylistically from the mainstream. In this excerpt, a goth teen explains how she found community with fellow goths, thanks to a little help from the Internet:

Although we do address some of the negative affects of technology below, using it to try new things is not all bad. I have worked with teens who made YouTube videos for their favorite community service cause and went on to raise thousands of dollars from strangers that they never would have been able to reach had it not been for the Internet. Websites such as Score.org and TeenInk encourage teens to try new experiences with nonprofits online, writing poetry and starting their own businesses. The Internet can give teens opportunities and practice in areas they never dreamed possible. Take for example an experience I had with a 17-year-old Michelle. I was speaking at a rural school in Missouri about Internet safety. Actually, I refuse to call my technology talks to students “Internet Safety,” and prefer instead to call them “Internet Savvy” as I review both the good and the bad parts of technology. After my talk, a tall female student walked up to the podium.

“Thanks for that,” she said.

I looked up from my notes expecting to meet one of the many similar looking girls I had seen milling around the halls all morning—average skin tone, medium length hair, some kind of brightly colored sweater. Yet, when I glanced up, I gulped—loudly. “Tha—ahhnk you?” I cleared my throat, “Thank you I mean.”

She shrugged her leather-clad shoulder. “I mean usually people come here and talk about how awful and unsafe the Internet is, but for me, it saved my life.”

The girl in front of me had jet-black dreadlocks to her hips, more piercings than I could count, and dark black eye make-up caked over painted white skin and large spiked boots. A couple of the students who had been waiting to talk to me shuffled off upon seeing her. I reminded myself to have no expectations and smiled. “Wow, it saved your life? What do you mean? And what’s your name, by the way.” I put out my hand.

She shook it gently. “I’m Michelle and I’m a Goth. I always knew I was different. But I live here.” She gestured around the large auditorium and I looked at all of the students who—though I was sure were unique in their own ways, looked strikingly similar. “Everyone here is the same. It used to drive me crazy. I don’t do drugs or have sex. I’m a good girl. I go to church, but I really like to dress this way. I like gothic make-up and music. But it doesn’t matter that I don’t do anything bad because when I dress like this, people think I’m bad.”

“I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. How did the Internet help exactly?”

“When I was 13 I went on MySpace. It was the first time I realized not everyone was from Missouri.” She laughed, “You know what I mean. I knew that before. But I found people who were like me. People who loved gothic make-up and heavy metal music and they didn’t do drugs or anything. I finally started to feel like less of a freak. I felt like I was normal—different than people here, but normal somewhere.”

I had never thought about this aspect of identity searching before. “So, it actually gave you a community and self-esteem about who you are?”

She flashed me teeth that matched her white skin. “Self-esteem, don’t even get me started. Before the Internet, to be honest I was thinking about killing myself. I hated who I was and was tired of pretending. I met a girl in a gothic chat forum who convinced me not to take the pills I found in my Dad’s medicine cabinet.” She looked down at her spiked boots. “I might not be here now if it wasn’t for the Internet.” I often tell this story when I speak, not only to demonstrate the importance of accepting people for their differences, but also to address the fact that technology provides new access to both good and bad experiences.

There are also many technological programs that give teens access to new opportunities and information. Teens who live in rural areas with rare diseases or psychological problems are doing digital doctor visits with therapists or specialists in far away cities when they cannot afford to travel. Another company called the Birds and Bees Text Line, started in North Carolina, delivers sex education to teens via text message. They send questions to teens like, “If you have sex underwater do you need a condom?” Teens can also send in their questions like, “Why do guys think it’s cool to sleep with a girl and tell their friends?” which will be responded to in 24 hours or less. This is a new kind of sex education that not only delivers information they might not get elsewhere to stay safe, but also offers them an anonymous and safe way to ask questions they are worried about.

Vanessa Van Petten is the creator of RadicalParenting.com, a parenting website written from the teen perspective to help parents understand them. She is also the author of the parenting book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?” Find out more about Vanessa and her new book in

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