Here’s a scene in my house: My almost 9-year-old is on the Internet doing something or other, and I am not standing over her shoulder or otherwise monitoring her.
Is this negligent? Am I throwing her to the wolves? I have no idea how to approach these thorny questions, so I have lunch with the academic and Microsoft researcher, danah boyd (she spells her name in lowercase letters for complicated philosophical and aesthetic reasons), who has studied this cluster of issues in an original and challenging way.
boyd has a pierced tongue, fuzzy sleeves, black and white striped tights, her mien basically that of a fast-talking Dr. Seuss hipster with a visionary vibe. She is a scholar and innovator, with a background in computer science and anthropology and media studies. She’s her own thing, in other words. She makes a million connections as she talks, the closest I have ever come to a human being who speaks in hyperlinks, but is also empathetic, attuned to nuanced emotional goings-on.
The thrust of boyd’s substantial research about kids is that we don’t need to be quite as hysterical about the Internet as we are. She once wrote, “Some days, I think my only purpose in life is to serve as a broken record, trying desperately to remind people, ‘the kids are alright’ … ’the kids are alright’ … ’the kids are alright.’ ”
boyd connects our fears of the Internet, of teenagers encountering adult situations, or explicit material, or interacting with strangers to the history of moral panics, which often center around technology and sexuality and young people. Her favorite moral panic, she tells me, is the panic over sewing machines, which concerned itself with women rubbing their legs on the machines as a threat to their purity.
Somehow the picturesque absurdity of the sewing-machine panic gets to the heart of the issue: What are we so afraid of? A friend tells me he worries about his sweet 12-year-old son being somehow transfigured by Internet pornography. Will he come across this stuff and turn into some kind of monster? But as boyd puts it, “exposure to content is much more complicated than that. Exposure to pornography does not automatically create the outcomes people are most afraid of.”
She is not, of course, arguing that kids should be exposed to pornography, but rather that their response to it depends on the kid. By way of analogy, she says that when a 40-year-old is an alcoholic, the issue is not that he was exposed to alcohol at 21.
In researching this issue, she studied teenagers’ response to Chatroulette, a webcam conversation launched in 2009 where people talk to random strangers around the world. (And here we are not talking about almost 9-year-olds, but slightly older set.) There was a great public concern that teenagers would come upon some guy jerking off and be traumatized, or somehow be mysteriously cajoled or beckoned into a life of promiscuity, but boyd said the teenagers’ actual reactions when they did encounter a flabby, bald middle-aged man staring into the camera and performing sexual acts was “Ew,” and they clicked past him. “It was the best abstinence-only education you can think of,” she jokes. Her point is that our deepest fears of kids’ confrontation with pornographic material, and what happens in that moment where they see something pornographic, may be overblown and irrational. And in fact, she argues that, on close examination, many of our cultural anxieties about what happens to kids online are based more on parents’ imaginations than the realities of teenage experience. (Take what she argues are the exaggerated fears of cyber-bullying for instance, or fears of sexual predators online, when the vast preponderance of sexual predators are people kids know in their daily lives.)
The idea of shutting out sex for as long as possible, protecting kids by not exposing them to it, may not be the perfect solution. “My feeling is that we do a disservice to young people by setting up pornography as forbidden ‘adult’ materials, thus making them hugely desirable. From my perspective, we need to prep young people to critically encounter this material long before they do.” Her argument that we should give them the apparatus to interrogate this material, rather than subscribing to the fantasy that we can shield them from it.
I do wonder though if my own original instinct toward giving my almost 9-year-old freedom is a self-justifying one. Am I just rationalizing the pragmatic realities of my own household? There is no way that as a single mother, with basically three jobs and a 2-year-old, that I can monitor the almost 9-year-old all the time, even if I wanted to or thought it was a good idea.
boyd points out that the expectation of constantly monitoring children and teenagers on the Internet is an upper-middle-class one. Even the ideal itself represents an impossible luxury for most people: Who has time to stand over the shoulder of your kids while they are on the Web? But even if we could monitor them so constantly, would it be a good thing? Are they doing something valuable with their avatars or profiles; is there something to be learned about the world by hanging out?
boyd argues that children’s freedom to roam in the physical world has been radically curtailed. While previous generations could ride bikes or walk to school or play outside unsupervised till dinner time, this generation is watched all the time. They have lost that thrill of being on their own until they are much older, and boyd suggests that for them, the Internet can provide that open space, to test and explore and try out the outside world. She points to the educational value of hanging out: a lot of the work kids do is apprehending the social world, and for them, much of this work is done online.
The important thing, boyd points out, is to give the kid the ability to handle choices, assess risks, and take what she calls “strategic” risks, or calculated risks. You want, in other words, to create the kid who can handle the Internet without you. And how can they become that kid if you are watching them all the time, if you are always hovering right there next to them? She says, “You don't just throw a 5-year-old out on the streets and tell her to figure it all out. The same is true online. But, equivalently, you can't expect to put under surveillance and control every action a child makes until she's 18 and then magically assume she'll be fine off at college when she hasn't had any experience managing her own decisions.”
The point, according to boyd, is not to create a safe world, but a safer world. Of course this is very fraught emotional territory, since it engages with the crucial and impossible fantasy that we can protect our children, that there is some way to seal them off from awful or painful or frightening things. Here I think of a line from one of boyd’s papers: “Our fears are amplified when they intersect with our insecurities and challenge our ability to be in control. Nowhere is this more palpable than when it comes a parent’s desire to protect their children.”
As a coda: My almost 9-year-old, when I finally get around to glimpsing what she is doing, is Googling pictures of Harry Potter characters. Of course one never knows what some rogue Hermione is doing in the corridors of some rogue Hogwarts somewhere in the recesses of the Internet, but I have decided (thank you, danah) not to morally panic.