Recently, several of my teen clients who role-play online have been experimenting with gender, sexual and romantic orientation.
And it has me wondering: is online role-play healthy experimentation or a troubling trend?
Screen media is having a profound influence on our culture. Between the Internet, YouTube, video games and social media apps, we are bombarded by information with more frequency than ever before in history.
Not only is screen media changing the way we consume information, it is also changing how we learn, think, develop as individuals and interact with the world. Consider how it has changed your life—then consider how it affects our kids.
Teens get particularly obsessed with webcomics and fandoms. A webcomic is a comic published on a website, some of which continue on for months at a time. For example, Homestuck began in 2009 and has published over 7,500 pages, still boasting over a million unique visitors per day.
A fandom is a subculture of fans that interact around a particular interest, such as a webcomic. Fans follow complex story arcs while engaging in analytical discussions about the story and the real world. These discussions are ripe with slang and constantly building upon shared understanding. Fans exchange artistic and costumed images, videos and memes that relate to their shared passion to form close relationships and subgroups that interact several hours a day. Some fans meet up at conferences for cosplay (costume play) of their favorite characters.
Along with a love of fantasy and creativity, webcomic fans often have a flair for intelligent and vigorous investigation of gender, sexual orientation and romantic interest.
What I’ve observed is that these kids are challenging traditional gender and sexual roles with a dizzying array of alternative sociological categories and terms.
What do I mean?
Because webcomic characters are fantasy-based, they can incorporate any combination of state or trait imaginable. One particular way authors of these webcomics take artistic license is to create a character of ambiguous gender and/or sexual orientation (e.g., an alien troll who is neither male nor female). As the audience follows these forever growing story lines, they become increasingly tolerant of and curious about character trait ambiguity.
In addition to following webcomic characters with multi-faceted states and traits, many fans go on to act out their interests playing as customized avatars in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). By experimenting with looks, back stories and behaviors, players witness the intricate impacts that these variables play in social interaction.
Keep in mind that they are not only communicating publicly within the game, but they are also interacting privately with individual or groups of players via instant messaging or with headsets and microphones.
These kids get a triple load of influence: one as a passive webcomic observer, a second as an engaged fandom participant and a third as a gamer. Many spend more time in these fantasy scenarios and online friendships than as live participants in the non-virtual world.
As you might expect, their real lives gradually begin to mimic their virtual lives.
I’ve now worked with several fandom-influenced teens who no longer identify as their born gender in identity, expression or behavior. Check out the terminology I’m learning from my clients:
Pangender: Those who identify with all genders.
Trigender: Those who shift from one gender to another depending on their mood or situation.
Gender Fluid: Those who mix two or more genders at a time (bigender for example).
Transgender: Those who identify with another gender than the assigned gender at birth.
Along with using gender-neutral pronouns, my clients born as girls cut their hair short and wear t-shirts and basketball shorts. Clients born as boys wear their hair long and apply guy-liner. It’s all very confusing, indeed.
Now complicate that with sexual orientations (asexual, pansexual, skoliosexual, bisexual, homosexual or heterosexual, to name a few) and romantic orientation (aromantic, panromantic, polyromantic) and one’s head starts to spin.
Lest you think it’s city livin’ that’s creating these issues, think again. With the World Wide Web, anyone with a screen is audience and potential participant to these complex sociological principles.
The teens in my office insist that their open-minded exploration is creating the supportive cultural milieu they idealistically envision. Some feel they were born with unique gender or sexual identities and others believe this exploration is a natural result of experience and experimentation. Their parents look on dazed and shrugging, trying their best to make decisions about slumber party arrangements amidst constantly-shifting gender, sexual and romantic orientations.
Imagine how these scenarios challenge families. Parents look to me for guidance as to whether they should encourage or discourage gender and sexual experimentation. They fear how their stance may affect their kids’ gender and sexual development.
If they whole-heartedly support gender, romantic and sexual orientation play, are they encouraging behavior that may be dangerously overwhelming for teens in the already complex landscape of adolescence? And alternatively, if they forbid experimentation, are they creating the kind of shame and isolation that can lead to serious trouble? After all, transgender youth have among the highest suicide rates of any minority group, leading us to understand this is not always “play,” but for some a working through of their very identity.
In situations where a teen is alone and closeted among family and friends, one can imagine that the opportunity for anonymity and the support of a positive, affirming community such as a fandom could literally be a lifesaver. Alternatively, game play typically involves provocative themes such as violence and sex. Online peers are friends and strangers of all ages, some with positive and others with predatory intent. The lack of transparency and versatility to manipulate what is seen and said during game play, along with a false expectation of anonymity and privacy adds further layers of risk.
How I manage the therapeutic relationship is a subject for another article. And with Bruce Jenner recently coming out on television, our gender-awareness as a society is stretching as I write.
For today, my intent is simply to alert parents that there are some life-spinning issues coming through the digital pipelines. What do you think? And please remember, no matter what challenges our kids face they will always need our patient guidance, love and support.
Author: Tracy Bennett
Apprentice Editor: Carlene Kurdziel; Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: Montecruz Foto/Flikr