On principle, I make a concerted effort not to be terrified of the internet. New things are terrifying, and the internet is new(ish), and there's a whole lot of unregulated territory and rough edges on which to snag your privacy and personal safety and maybe your civil liberties too. But, as cooler heads always remind us, every paradigm-shifting technological advancement caused frantic hand-wringing from semi-olds like me—and yet the human race is chugging along better than ever. But does that kind of laissez-faire Matthew-McConaughey-chilled-out-bongo-dude-itude also apply to kids on the internet? HOW DO WE PROTECT THE KIDS!?
When I was a kid (the '80s and early '90s), we didn't know shit. Life was a frustrating/comforting maze of not knowing anything about anything and not having access to any information. I mean, there were older brothers and libraries, but those were hardly sufficient when it came to the real questions. And so, you just waited, and life trickled into your ear at its own pace. You figured it out eventually. (I'm 30, and I'm still remembering questions I had when I was 13 and looking them up on Wikipedia. It's a long list.)
But now? Kids can just know ALL OF THE SHIT AT ANY TIME. Beep-boop-boop-Siri-what's-"felching"? Beep-boop-beep-Jimmy-Wales-why-does-TK? I can't imagine what that kind of unfettered information-dump would have done to my already weird teen brain. But I'm not entirely certain that it would have been bad.
That said, there are risks online for the exuberant and naive. SURE, there are creepy dudes in sweatpants masquerading as girls named "Danielle" who luv 2 lol and just want to meet up at Yogurtland sometime (don't tell ur mom). SURE, there are cyber-bullies hounding children to their deaths. And SURE, there are idiot kids irreparably fucking up their own futures by calling the president racial slurs and wishing for his death in a public forum (honestly, some of you, I'm more afraid OF your 13-year-olds on the internet than I am FOR your 13-year-olds on the internet).
To assuage and/or preempt some concerns, the New York Times today featured a quick rundown of how to "safely" set up a 13-year-old on Facebook:
Even for an adult, Facebook's privacy settings are as daunting as trying to do your taxes with an abacus. For teenagers, unaware of the consequences of their online actions, using Facebook incorrectly could potentially leave a digital trail that might follow them all the way through high school, college and into the real world. What's more, there are also creepy people out there on social networks.
...First, you should sit down with children and explain that anything - stress the word anything –they post can and will be used against them on the Internet. This includes private messages and photos they believe are visible only to friends and comments they leave on people's pictures or status updates. Although all of these things can be set to private, a friend-turned-enemy could take a screenshot of something your teenager has shared, then send it around school for all to jeer at.
Indeed! Top shelf advice and all of that!
It's easy to fetishize your personal upbringing as the "right" way to grow up—after all, it worked out fine for you—like, I'm constantly shaking my head at the fact that my kids will never learn the powerful lessons I absorbed from watching every episode of Hey Dude 97 times. Lessons like "If you have a crush on a girl, don't leave her blindfolded in the desert near an abandoned mine shaft because if she manages to not die she'll probably push you in the water trough later." And "If you are a bumbling big-city accountant who owns a dude ranch and you decide to host a pro wrestling match for publicity, and one of the wrestlers doesn't show up, don't fill in for him yourself because the other guy might be Captain Lou Albano." You know. All the classic fables. My kids aren't going to learn THAT shit from Dog with a Blog (although we are learning a lot about inappropriate dog sexuality).
But really, there is no soft-focus golden age when kids weren't under threat and parents didn't worry. Parenting is fucking terrifying. But there have always been dangers, they're just different now—and when old threats die out, new ones take their place. Yes, we have the internet, but we also don't have polio. Yes, our kids are on Facebook, but they're also wearing seat belts. We should be careful, of course (as if our 'stincts would let us be otherwise), but I think it's important to remember that our parents were terrified too. And we turned out pretty much fine. The kids will be fine.
Photo credit: ilona75 / Stockfresh.