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The history of civilization is the history of sending children out into the world. The child of a 17th-century weaver would have been raised and educated at home, prey to the diseases and domestic accidents of his time, but protected from strangers who meant him harm. As the spheres of home and work began to separate, cleaving parents from their sons and daughters, children faced dangers of an altogether different kind. The world is not, nor has it ever been, full of people who prey upon children. But it has always had more than enough of them, and it always will. Think of the Children's Crusade: Several thousand children marched out of Cologne to liberate the Holy Land but barely made it to Brindisi; they ended up dead or sold into sex slavery, an army of innocents easily picked off within a few weeks' march from home.
With the Internet, children are marching out into the world every second of every day. They're sitting in their bedrooms — wearing their retainers, topped up with multivitamins, radiating the good care and safekeeping that is their lot in life in America at the beginning of the new century — and they're posting photographs of themselves, typing private sentiments, unthinkingly laying down a trail of bread crumbs leading straight to their dance recitals and Six Flags trips and Justin Timberlake concerts, places where anyone with an interest in retainer-wearing 13-year-olds is free to follow them. All that remains to be seen is whether anyone will follow them, and herein lies a terrifying uncertainty, which neither skeptics nor doomsayers can deny: The Internet has opened a portal into what used to be the inviolable space of the home, through which anything, harmful or harmless, can pass. It won't be closing anytime soon — or ever — and all that parents can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintains that one out of five kids who use the Internet has been propositioned for sex. It's hard to know just how accurately such events can be quantified, and when I first read the statistic, I found it hard to believe that, if indeed so many children were being propositioned, more parents weren't uniting in outrage, rather than wiring up their kids at a blistering pace. My friends with teenagers were very open with them and were well-informed about the dangers of the Internet; I couldn't imagine one out of five of those kids being propositioned by a stranger and not telling their parents,
But Hansen provides a second bit of information that made me wonder if that statistic wasn't in fact on the low side.
As part of the first episode of his show, Hansen convened a panel of tweens and teens, among them children of some of his colleagues at NBC, and asked how many of them had been "approached online by someone in a sexual way that made you feel uncomfortable." Almost all the kids raised their hands. Then he asked how many had told their parents. Not a hand went up. And when he asked why they hadn't told their parents, all the kids in the room said they didn't tell because they didn't want their parents to take away their Internet connections.
Suddenly, it all made sense to me: Teenagers don't tell their parents that someone nasty got through to them for the same reason I didn't tell my parents that kids were dropping acid at a party — because they wouldn't let me go to those parties anymore. That's the horrible, inescapable fact of coming of age: The moment you choose the world over your parents, you've chosen to make your own decisions about what's safe and what's not, with only your own wits to protect you.
Just how dangerous is the unsupervised use of the Internet by adolescents? Nobody knows. I suspect that in a decade or so we'll all have a very different set of beliefs about how and when and for what purposes teenagers should be allowed to go online. When something new comes along, it takes a while for parents to sort out what's safe and what isn't, and even longer for their conclusions to become commonly held assumptions about good parenting. In the future it may be unheard-of for a teenage girl from a loving family to disappear into her room every night for two hours of unsupervised e-chatting and instant messaging. Then again, it may be even more common than it is today. All we know for sure is that our children are living in the midst of a technological revolution, and that they're drawn to it like moths to a flame.
Most parents of teenage girls with Internet connections will tell you that their daughters' physical safety isn't in jeopardy — they've taken all kinds of precautions they think ensure this — but that the online experience is doing nothing for the girls' peace of mind. Not many people are as ill-served by having their natterings subjected to instantaneous, global transmission as adolescent girls. In the first place, these girls' feelings can be hurt by even a well-intentioned comment or question, and having a caustic remark that would have been bad enough if kept between two people suddenly unleashed to the whole clique, team, or school can be a wretched experience.
Furthermore, because this new technology can make the old girl standbys of gossip and social exclusion and taunting more efficient — and therefore more cruel — many girls arrive at school each morning having experienced the equivalent of a public hazing in the privacy of their own rooms. While Johnny's upstairs happily sneaking hard-core pornography past his Internet filter, poor Judy is next door weeping into her pillow because everyone in the eighth grade now knows that she still uses pads, not tampons. (Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Mom and Dad are trying to figure out how to watch Dancing With the Stars now that the remote's on the fritz again.)
Kelsey describes an experiment she conducts each year in which kids are asked not to log on for an entire week. Many of them can't hack it, but the ones who do often find themselves happier and calmer.
Some of the most harmless aspects of social media would have crushed me at 14. Members get to list their "Top 8" friends, a list they can change at whim. It's an ingenious number, because it's just large enough to make exclusion really hurt — eight people, and there wasn't any room at all for me?
One of the great paradoxes of our age is that at the exact moment when a huge number of teachers, parents, and school administrators have dedicated themselves to the emotional well-being and self-confidence of adolescent girls, a technology has come along that's virtually guaranteed to undermine that confidence. A girl can go to school and happily discover that it's possible for her to become a scientist when she grows up, but that may be cold comfort when she comes home to discover that five people just dropped her from their Top 8.
The primary engine of socia media's stupendous growth isn't the Internet or the additional opportunities for cattiness it provides, but the fathomless narcissism of the young. There's no more ardent devotee of a social media profile than its creator, lovingly adjusting the lighting on the perfect self-portrait, changing the song that serenades it, the graphics that surround it. The page can speak broadly to others, but others are almost beside the point; every profile is a sonnet to the self. Today's girls spend hours looking at their social media profiles, fiddling and tinkering with them — much as I once sat in front of my vanity mirror, holding my hair up and letting it fall, smiling one way and then the other. For girls, the powerful need to be alone in their bedrooms — dreaming, writing in diaries, looking at themselves in the mirror — is married to a kind of exhibitionism. Why was I trying out my hair so many different ways, if not to calculate its potential effect on others? The Internet makes it possible to combine these two opposed desires: to be alone trying something out and to be exposed in public for everyone to see. A decade from now, a large group of parents may be telling anyone who will listen that this is a very dangerous combination indeed.
Social media has more than 100 million members and an unknown number of unregistered lurkers. Last spring, I became one of the latter. The site seemed hopelessly confusing at first, so to get started, I went to the search box and typed in the name of the high school closest to my house. It's the best girls' school in Los Angeles, with a walled and beautiful campus. As soon as I entered the name, the profiles of several girls popped up, and I clicked on the first one, a girl I'll call "Jenna." (Protecting her identity seems at once important and ridiculous: I am taking pains to make private information that she has taken pains to make public.)
I could tell in a minute that this was no fake profile. I taught at a Los Angeles private school for many years, and the associations and places to which she made reference were all of a piece — at once too prosaic and too specific to be fabricated. She was a nice girl, you could tell that right away: Her profile picture showed her in a bikini at the beach, but it wasn't posed or self-consciously provocative. There were pictures from all kinds of parties and from trips to Disneyland and the Santa Monica Pier, and she had a steady boyfriend who posted to her page all the time, as well as a group of friends and family members who clearly thought the world of her.
As I read her messages (especially the charming ones between her and her boyfriend, who had moved from "best friend" to '"lover" status over the course of many sweet and well-documented months), I felt guilty, as though I were looking at things I shouldn't have been, as though I were lingering at a doorway, overhearing something private. And yet all of them were posted in a place that was designed not just to allow me in but to welcome me.
In that moment, the reality of my new life on the far side of a generation gap hit me fully. My fundamental understanding of privacy — the notion that one shouldn't listen in on the personal conversations of others — marked me as old. I'm not old because I like to peek into people's private lives; I'm old because I feel guilty about it. And I couldn't shake the feeling that — merely by trolling slowly and patiently through her pictures and conversations and lists of favorite things — I had become predatory. Dwelling secretly in the private life of a beautiful young girl seemed inherently sinister, and I had to remind myself, over and over, that I was doing nothing wrong.
Because I'm the mom of two preteens growing up in a social milieu not so different from Jenna's, her social media was a comfort to me. Her friends were nice, their pursuits and pleasures were wholesome enough (much more wholesome than what my friends and I were up to A quarter century ago), and her boyfriend was pure gold — a stalwart encourager of her studies, a champion of her parents and family whose own social media photo was a picture of the two of them. And because I'm someone who loves to read about the day-to-day nature of people's lives, the page was very interesting to me. But if I were the kind of person who regards beautiful teenage girls — especially cloistered ones from good families — as objects of irresistible erotic desire, I would not have been comforted or merely "interested"; I would have been excited, perhaps unbearably so.
The current resurgence of girls' schools like Jenna's is based on the idea that to become strong and powerful, girls need an environment in which they are protected from the various energies and appetites of adolescent boys. Free of the sexually charged atmosphere that will always pervade coed high schools, they can emerge and evolve in ways they never could in the presence of ogling, domineering boys. What contemporary parents of daughters — among them some of the most liberal-minded — have come to believe is not so different from what 19th-century parents believed : The sexual unfolding of a young girl is such a fraught process emotionally as well as physically that she needs to be carefully sheltered from the myriad forces that would seek to exploit or coarsen her as she reconciles the girl that she was with her biological destiny. That Jenna's parents would pour such a river of cash into her school tuition to grant her that safe and gentle place, and that — at the cost of not one cent — she would have created a social media page so dangerously revealing (in every sense of the word) is a terrific irony.
In the middle of Jenna's profile was a calendar relentlessly ticking down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until graduation, which was a little more than a week away. I glanced up from the computer screen, through the scrim of leafy branches and out in the general direction of the school, startled by the realization that Jenna — this person I had never heard of 20 minutes before and about whose intimate late I now knew quite a bit — was a flesh-and-blood human being who was at that moment sitting in a building a few blocks away. I minimized the social media page on my screen and typed the name of Jenna's school into my search engine; the school's home page had a calendar button, and I clicked on it. I waited for the site to ask me for a password, but it didn't. Up came a complete record of Jenna's whereabouts for the following week: the exam schedule, the school awards ceremony, the graduation exercises, the faculty-appreciation luncheon.
Just about every kid in the country knows not to post his or her last name or address or phone number on the Internet. The paltry set of facts that I so innocently wrote on my luggage tag so long ago are the only bits of information that kids guard jealously today. What they don't realize is that when the vast matrix of information easily available on the Internet is cross-referenced to the bountiful data they supply on social media, it can lead right to them. You tell me where your daughter goes to school and what sport she plays, and I'll tell you what day and time she'll be playing a game in a public park. Look around that park while you're watching the game — it's not inconceivable that one of the men there has come to catch a glimpse of a particular girl on the team.
A portal has opened in the once inviolable space of the home, through which anything, harmful or harmless, can pass.
The primary engine of social media's stupendous growth isn't the Internet, but the fathomless narcissism of the young.
Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice
- Cash, H., D. Rae, C., H. Steel, A., & Winkler, A. (2012). Internet addiction: A brief summary of research and Practice. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8(4), 292–298.
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