The Secret Life Of Teens

"Hi, kids, do you like violence? Wanna see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids? Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?" The bleached-blond pixie could be a refugee from the set of "Friends," all smirk and glimmer. He is Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, whose debut rap album has been near the top of the charts for the last two months. In the secret lives of American teenagers, Eminem is large. "By the way," he raps, "when you see my dad, tell him I slit his throat in this dream I had."

Since they first emerged as a demographic entity earlier this century, adolescents of every era have carved out their own secret worlds, inventing private codes of style and behavior designed to communicate only within the in group and to exclude or offend adults. It is a central rite of American passage. But lately this developmental process has come under great strain. "In the past, the toughest decision [teens] had was whether to have sex, or whether to use drugs," says Sheri Parks, who studies families and the media at the University of Maryland. "Those are still there, but on top are piled all these other issues, which are very difficult for parents or children to decipher." New technologies and the entertainment industry, combined with changes in family structure, have more deeply isolated grown-ups from teenagers. The results are what Hill Walker, codirector of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior in Oregon, calls "almost a virtual reality without adults."

With as many as 11 million teenagers now online, more and more of adolescent life is taking place in a landscape that is inaccessible to many parents. "That is apparent in the geography of households," says Marlene Mayhew, a clinical psychologist who runs an online mental-health newsletter. With the computer often in the teen's bedroom, Mayhew says, the power structure in the family is turned upside down. "Kids are unsupervised, looking at whatever they please." A parent who might eventually notice a stockpile of Guns Ammo or pornographic magazines has fewer clues to a child's online activities. "We're missing the opportunity for an adult reality check, adult perspective on the stimulation [teens] are getting exposed to. Kids have less access to parents, more access to potentially damaging information."

The pop-culture industry, marketing tribal styles through MTV and the Internet, makes it harder than ever for adults to read their kids, even parents raised on rock and roll. Parents in the '50s could "read" the ripe sexuality of Elvis--they just might not have approved. But what to make of the much more densely encrypted messages and camp nihilism of Eminem or Marilyn Manson, who dare outsiders to take offense? How to distinguish a kid drawn to gangsta rapper DMX for the rhymes from one drawn to the crimes? Making the process harder, teens have long been adept at lying, dissembling and otherwise conniving to hide their secret lives. Robyn Sykes, a senior at Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif., reports that the skills are still sharp. "Some girls," she says, "leave the house wearing one thing, and then change into tight, short skirts when they're here."

Mike L., 13, from suburban New York, is one of the unsupervised millions online. A couple years ago his father spied on him through a window, catching him in a chat room where people swapped pirated software. But now Mike has his own laptop and can do what he wants. Like many kids, he mostly sends e-mail and hangs around chat rooms, where he encounters both adults and other teens. "You go in, and someone offers what they've got stored in their computer," he says. "And maybe one of the things is 'The Anarchist Cookbook'," a notorious handbook that includes instructions for building bombs. Though he doesn't have it, he says, "one of my friends gets called down to the guidance counselor every day because somebody told a teacher that he knows how to make bombs. He's not the kind of guy who would do it. But he found out how on the Internet." Andrew Tyler, 13, from Haddonfield, N.J., used his Internet freedom another way: two weeks ago, while his mother tended the family garden, Tyler placed bids on $3.2 million worth of merchandise via the online auction house eBay, including the winning bid on a $400,000 bedroom set. "I thought [eBay] was just a site," he told NEWSWEEK. "It turned out to be a lot more than that."

The vast majority of adolescents' online activity ranges from edifying to harmless. Though hard numbers on Internet use are notoriously suspect, Malcolm Parks, an Internet researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that most teens use the computer to send e-mail or instant messages, visit chat rooms or fan Web sites, do homework or download songs. For the most part, he says, "I worry more about poor quality of information online, and students' lack of skills for evaluating information, than I worry about frequently discussed evils like pornography."

At Neutral Ground in Manhattan on a recent afternoon, other skills are in play. The drafty, fourth-floor gaming room, undetectable from the street, is a teen oasis, dotted with interconnected computers. By a quarter to four, it is packed with adolescent boys. Robert, one of eight boys glued to the screens, suddenly curses and bangs on the table. "Die, you stupid whore," he shouts. Then, "I'm gonna go kill Sebastian now." Sebastian, three terminals down, calls back: "You take this game way too seriously."

They are playing Half-Life, known in videogame parlance as a multiplayer "first-person shooter" game, or FPS. As Robert pushes a key, a red shell fires from an onscreen shotgun; arms fly off, blood spatters on the walls. "If my parents came down here now," says Mike, pausing from the carnage, "they'd probably drag me out." The best-known FPS is Doom, the game reportedly favored by the Littleton shooters, but to the kids at Neutral Ground, Doom is already passe. A new game, Kingpin, promises even hairier carnal gratifications. "Includes multiplayer gang bang death match for up to 16 thugs!" coos the ad copy. "Target specific body parts and actually see the damage done including exit wounds."

The videogame business last year topped $6.3 billion, much of it dedicated for play on the home computer. The more violent games are marked for sales to mature buyers only, but like R-rated movies, they are easily accessible to kids. "The people usually tell you you're not old enough," says Eddie, 14, a regular at Neutral Ground, "but they don't stop you from buying it." Eddie says most FPS games "make me dizzy," but he enjoys one called Diablo, which is not just another shoot-'em-up orgy. "It's more like slice 'em up." His parents don't like the games but rarely engage him on it. His mother, he says, "thinks it's too violent, so she doesn't watch."

Most teenagers seem to process the mayhem as mindless pyrotechnics. But not all kids react the same way, warns Dan Anderson, a University of Massachusetts psychologist who has studied the effects of TV on children. "It's always been the case that the kids who have been vulnerable to violent messages on television have been a small minority. But a small minority can cause serious havoc. If you're predisposed to violence and aggression, you can find like-minded people who will validate your experience. You can become part of an isolated group that family and friends don't know about, and that group can exchange information on getting or making weapons." Brad Bushman, an Iowa State University psychologist, argues that violent computer games are more harmful than movies, "because the person becomes the aggressor. They're the one that does the killing."

In Santa Monica last week Collin Williams and his friends, a multiracial group of eighth graders, describe a numbing effect. Sure, they shrugged, a tragedy like the one in Littleton could happen in their school. Though they don't spend much time on computers, says Williams, 14, "we see so much violence on TV and in the movies that it just seems like it's everywhere. We don't go to school thinking we're going to be killed. But maybe it's because we're so used to it."

The challenges for parents may be new, but they are not insurmountable. Many psychologists recommend changing the way the computer is used. Put it in a family room, where adults and teens have more opportunities to discuss what's coming into the house. Every Web browser records what sites users visit; parents can monitor their kids' activities with just elementary computer savvy. Filters, such as Net Nanny, restrict which sites users can visit, but smart kids can get around them often by using a friend's computer. Idit Harel, founder of the kid-friendly site MaMaMedia, highly recommends playing videogames along with your kids. Even in violent games, she says, "there is learning, visualization; there is analysis of hints." Likewise, parents can either set limits on their kids' pop-cultural diets or just talk to the teens about what they're consuming. Say: "I don't understand this kid Eminem. What's he about?"

Even with such interaction, the secret lives of teenagers are likely to remain secret. They are as unbounded as the Internet and as plebeian as the Backstreet Boys, a daunting world for any parent to enter. But this remains the job of parenting. Today's teens command an electronic landscape more stimulating, vibrant and mysterious than any before. They are the masters of the new domain. But they still need adult guidance on their travels.