It wasn't so long ago that a teenage girl who wished she were prettier would parade in front of a mirror in her older sister's clothes. And in time, she'd be called downstairs for supper.
It wasn't so long ago that a teenage boy, wishing he were tougher, would do push-ups on his bedroom floor or mimic a movie poster on his wall. And in time, he'd be called downstairs for supper.
You'll notice a similarity in those fantasies: They began and ended inside the teenager's imagination.
Those days are gone.
Today, you can be as cool, as sexy or as old as you want to be. You simply put yourself on MySpace.com. You create a page; throw up some suggestive photos; make up lies about your age, experience or coolness; and bask in the idea that other people see you the way you want to be seen.
And you don't think about the fact that some of the people seeing you are creeps.
Last week, my newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, followed the story of a 13-year-old Harrison Township, Mich., girl who pretended, through her suggestive site on MySpace, that she was 18. A 25-year-old man drove all the way from Indiana to pick her up. They were in the car, reportedly heading back to Indiana, when police in Kalamazoo County, Mich., stopped them.
That was lucky because something tells me they weren't going to see a movie. Let's say, for argument's sake, they had sex. And then they were caught. Several lives could have been altered forever, possibly ruined by trials and jail time.
For what? Boredom? Loneliness? These emotions have been around forever. But the Internet to loneliness is like fission to uranium. Suddenly, there's an explosive new world of possibilities. Most of them are bad.
Now, I know the easy reaction is to call the 25-year-old a pervert and to sweep the poor, confused young girl into our protective embrace. But before you do, you might want to wander through MySpace for an hour.
You will weep for the future.
Many of the young faces are sullen, sunken or sultry. The nicknames they give themselves would embarrass a porn star. Their photos are often half-naked. The language of their messages can range from boredom to sex to violence to weirdness to sex again.
This is not the first generation to harbor fantasies. But it is the first to share them with the world. When we were kids, we never would have gone out with "I don't give a ..." on a T-shirt or Playboy decals on our heads. We wouldn't have walked through the school promising the best sex ever.
Why? Because we'd have been laughed at. We'd have been exposed. But if you don't need to come face-to-face with your clique, you can be anything. The fat and pimply can be trim and popular. The shy and awkward can be sexually dynamic.
As cool as you want to be.
As long as you don't leave the computer.
The problem is, even today's kids want to go outside now and then. They embolden themselves for a meeting at a mall, at a gas station, at a coffee shop.
And the parents' nightmares begin.
So how do you stop it? Well, monitoring your kid's computer use is obvious. But the MySpace generation is way ahead of you, ready with fake-outs and secret tip-offs to their co-chatters. (POTS stands for "parents over the shoulder.")
You could lose the computer altogether. But as long as libraries and schools and Internet cafes exist, kids will find a way to log on.
The bottom line is that you must be more involved with your kids than ever. The world has changed: It's split in two, on-line and off-line. And that precious ninth-grader you think you know may be someone quite different to a lot of other people.