I recently watched a Frontline episode with my parents that discussed the danger of young people’s increased use of the Internet, and they were amused that I spent much of the time yelling back at the television. While overall the episode was excellent and did a commendable job showing multiple sides to a complicated issue, some of the interviewees espoused the popular yet flawed view that the Internet is a dark and dangerous place that gobbles up innocent children. Sexual predators and serial killers lurk everywhere in the shadows, waiting until the one time your children mentions his full name and age on MySpace. Otherwise moral and polite children attack and threaten each-other with broken English. Kids replace “real” friends with “MySpace friends.” Etcetera, etcetera. I have quite a bit of experience dealing with this fearful perspective, considering it is the view my parents used to hold.
My argument is that these people’s problems with the Internet all stem from a single misconception: they see the Internet as something foreign and unknown, and therefore they see everything on it as a product of the Internet itself, rather than a product of the people who uploaded it.
A perfect example from the Frontline episode is how the concept of “cyber-bullying” was portrayed. Commentators talked about it as if it were separate from regular bullying, when basically the main difference is that it involves IM, social networking sites, and such, which can reach a larger audience more quickly than traditional gossip. In my mind, that doesn’t make it a completely separate issue. The producers of the show were absolutely right that cyber-bullying is a serious problem, but that’s because regular bullying is a serious problem; the former is just an extension of the latter.
The “cyber-bullying” portrayed in the episode involved a student’s classmates bullying him both in school and out of school via the Internet. Some of the commentators pointed out that much of what was said online might not have been said in a real-life conversation, because in an IM chat you don’t “talk face-to-face.” From this, they implied that the Internet itself is partially to blame for the bullying, and that the fact that it enables non “face-to-face” conversation makes it bad. Quite simply, the Internet didn’t turn that student’s classmates into bullies. The problem hasn’t changed because modern technology was involved. All that’s really changed is that there’s a new platform of communication that is open to the free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and this platform can be used for whatever anyone wants; from blogging to bullying. Blaming the Internet because it allows assholes to communicate is a little bit silly.
One thing that the episode captured wonderfully is the generation gap. Parents really don’t understand what their children do on the computer all day. And, IMO, that’s exactly how it should be. Parents never understand what their children are in to. Before it was rock music and long hair, now it’s computers and technology. It’s all to be expected. Children need an opportunity to distance themselves from their parents and develop their own individuality, and in this day and age there’s no better way to do that than using the Internet.
One story in the Frontline episode that supports my theory is a story of a high schooler who became a famous goth idol on MySpace. Her parents, seeing this, were outraged. They forced her to delete all her photos. After a while, however, they came around — they realized how important it was to the self-confidence of their otherwise-introverted daughter, and when she re-opened her MySpace profile she had the support of her parents.
Now, I don’t mean to say that there’s no legitimate fear of children accessing the Internet. According to recent statistics, 36% of teenagers had met in real life with someone they had met online. Though the danger is greatly exaggerated, there is a danger of children being abducted due to giving out large amounts of personal information online. Like I said above, however, it is silly to blame the Internet for this.
The Internet is an extension of reality, and it should be treated as such. Giving out personal information to strangers is a bad idea all around — rather than warning us no to do it online, it would be better to tell us never to do it. Children are in just as much danger of abduction when they go to the park as they are when they go online. The only thing the Internet really changes is the size and reach of the community. The pseudo-anonymity and impersonal nature of conversations online with strangers should be taken with a grain of salt, just as a conversation with a stranger on the street should be. A random drunk guy on the sidewalk that calls you a fag is really no different than a /b/tard.
EDIT: I changed the title because the original one was boring.