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.