Now You Know, and Knowing Is Half the Battle

Geeky Mom gets two things right about the recent Frontline special about children’s use of the Internet. First, that some of the parents shown in the show have no one to blame but themselves for not knowing what their kids are up to online, and second, that the program largely sought to play up to the fears of those parents in a time-honored, well-tested fashion.

As with children’s television, radio, mass-printed books, cave paintings and storytelling at the dawn of human history, the basic solution is literacy and conversation. Not for the kids, for the parents. You want to know what your kid is up to on MySpace? Know what MySpace is. Have a MySpace page. Make a family culture. That’s not just so you can understand your kid: it’s about an enduring new mode of literacy that is powerfully distributed through every aspect of your life already, even if you don’t know it or don’t care to know it. (I’d go off on a tangent about humanistic academics and their lamentably low levels of digital literacy here, but I’ll save that for another day.) If you try to gain some digital literacy to understand your child’s world, you’ll be doing yourself a big favor as well.

The Frontline producer who shows up in the thread at Geeky Mom agrees that the Internet is a double-edged sword. I agree: one edge is knowledge and the other edge is ignorance. The Internet has two sides the way that all communication and representation and expressive culture have two sides. The technologically unique dimensions of digital culture have very little to do with the issues that most concern ignorant parents about online use by contemporary teenagers. Your teenager is keeping secrets from you? Heavens to Murgatroyd, that never happened back when we just had typewriters and television. People are writing bad things on the Internet? I never heard of a book with dangerous or disturbing content which happened to find its way into the hands of people under the age of 18. Sexual deviants are looking for children online? I guess the flashers and predators that were around when I was a kid were time-travellers from the digital future. Kids are looking at online pr0n? I guess I’m just imagining that the 13-year old boys in my junior high noticed the Cheryl Tiegs fishnet-bathing-suit issue of Sports Illustrated in the school library and helpfully passed it around potlatch style for a couple of months before the librarians caught on.

There are many genuinely novel capacities, abilities, and forms that digital technologies create or permit, some of which really are culturally transformative, sometimes jarringly so. But the “Won’t somebody think of the CHILDRENS??????” stuff strikes me as largely coming from a much more historically established infrastructure of moral panic and public anxiety about family, media and modern life.

It could be worse. At least the Frontline people are in there talking about the show, agree there are two sides to the coin, and actually care about things like facts. When the same kind of narrative gets in the hands of media producers who no longer have any sense of shame or any residual connection to the world as it actually is, you get something roughly like this Fox News segment on the game Mass Effect. What I love about the segment is that the poor guy from SpikeTV can straightforwardly say, “You’re simply wrong, and here’s the ways in which you’re factually wrong” and it doesn’t slow either the Fox newscaster or their pet “expert” Cooper Lawrence down for even a microsecond. She says, “You play as a man and the purpose of the game is seeking out women for sex”. He says, “Actually, you can be male or female and the discreetly sexual scene in the game is about 2 minutes long in a 3 to 4 hour experience”. They don’t even pause, on with the show. (I noticed looking at the Amazon reviews of Lawrence’s book that there are at least some reputational consequences to annoying the hell out of gamers, though I’m guessing that Amazon is going to remove most of those reviews. That, too, is another topic to take up soon in a separate entry.)

I’d love for digital literacy to progress far enough and fast enough across a number of spectrums that we could begin to have a public conversation about the real issues and choices it presents, rather than things like “it’s like kids have their own private world” and “I hear tell that there’s one of them video games where a kid could have sex or sumpin like that”.

Update: Cooper Lawrence confesses. Don’t hold your breath expecting Fox News to do the same.

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14 Responses to Now You Know, and Knowing Is Half the Battle

  1. Doug says:

    Any sort of historical pattern discernible? That is, what are the time lags between widespread radio technology, popular radio dramas, and moral panics about same? Anything similar with TV, movies? I don’t know the history well enough to say, but I’d be interested if someone who did know pointed out any parallels.

  2. Western Dave says:

    I didn’t see the show but the tv ads had me thinking of the 1950s comic book panic. See the book Cycles of Outrage for more on that round of teen culture panic.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The first two essays in Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City also have some interesting thoughts on the historical use of media-as-danger-to-children.

  4. Stuart Buck says:

    Isn’t the paragraph citing Cheryl Tiegs a bit glib? A Sports Illustrated picture is miles away from the kind of hard-core stuff that is easily available online today (and that even shows up uninvited in email inboxes) — stuff that can’t be described here or people wouldn’t be able to view this website from work.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Fair enough, but then the question is a question of scale and type, not a question of a novel social phenomenon, which is how most media panics present their case, that something is happening which has never happened before.

    It’s not even clear whether the intensity and ubiquity of extreme porn online creates a different kind of subjectivity or experience for the adolescent viewer, necessarily. There’s the old kid-in-a-candy-store issue here, namely, something which becomes ubiquitious becomes banal, and in becoming banal, may have less psychological and determinative power than otherwise. Saying “f***” when I was a kid was a huge, huge deal, and if you said it, you felt an enormous rush of transgressive power, a sense that something of consequence has just happened. Saying that something “sucked” when my mother was young inevitably meant that you were saying that it “sucked c***”–she can’t unhear the referent in it. Now saying that something sucks doesn’t carry that meaning, and I’m not even sure that f*** is that big a deal. (I’m asterixing the letters out of concern for the filters you mention, not because I’m sensitive to the word myself.) So you could say that Cheryl Tiegs’ visible nipples were vastly more pornographic in one way to the 13-year olds at my school than a parade of porn bodies might be now. It’s at least an issue to think about, and the kind of question that media panics typically elide.

  6. Stuart Buck says:

    Well, I’m not sure I buy that it’s just a scale distinction. There’s all kinds of material online right now that wasn’t available in any format 50 years ago; or that, at most, would have been available only in the a few seedy and sordid locations (and certainly not to children). But now it’s in everyone’s home, just a click away. If you’re worried about your kid’s innocence, it’s not very satisfactory to think that we’re raising a generation of kids who are so jaded that they view that kind of stuff with the same “subjectivity or experience” as kids used to feel when they saw Cheryl Tiegs. Same for violence: Is it comforting that kids today might view the rampant bodycount in Rambo IV with less emotion than a 1950s kid would have felt about seeing a single gunshot wound?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s the point: it’s Rambo IV. I guarantee you that in the right kind of movie, a single gunshot wound will still be as devastating a thing to represent in a film as it ever was. I simply think the entire concept of “desensitization” is the problem here–the proposition that repeated witnessing of certain visual representations changes something about how we see that act in the wider world of our experience. What it changes is how we relate to a given text. Let a 16-year old watch some hard-core porn, and I guarantee you that a single modest sex scene can still be emotionally gripping and moving to him or her–and I guarantee you that his or her sexual experience will be something again altogether.

  8. Stuart Buck says:

    I see your point, but I am congenitally unable to believe it. My own experience has been quite the opposite. I had a sheltered upbringing, and until I was about 18, I had never seen anything more violent than Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons or Anne of Green Gables. Then I saw the movie Point Break — and I remember to this day being pinned to my seat in horror at the violence in that movie (which really isn’t that violent — a few people get shot, I think). Today, I’ve seen many scores of violent movies, and violence has very little effect on me (even when it is orders of magnitude greater than what was in Point Break). But the thing is, I don’t ever notice within myself the phenomenon that you’re describing — right now, there simply is no film wherein violence, however grippingly depicted, ever affects me the same way that Point Break did, or that even affects me at a level deeper than “Hmm, that’s too bad.” I’ve seen so much violence in movies by now that absolutely none of it ever pins me to my seat any more. In any event, I just can’t help thinking that there’s no such thing as a person who has watched tons of hard-core [pron or violence] but who nonetheless has the same ability to feel the full emotional impact of a “single modest” scene.

    To be sure, maybe what I’ve experienced is not just desensitization to violence, but desensitization to movies more generally — that is, I’ve seen so many more movies that it’s now a more detached experience in which one doesn’t feel quite so swept away by the story (“This is just a movie, after all”), but instead starts analyzing the camera technique or the orchestral score, etc.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    There Will Be Blood doesn’t really have all that much violence in it, in terms of the length of the film. But the three or four violent events were to be gripping, shocking, emotionally powerful, unaffected by the numerous acts of violence I’ve seen on-screen.

  10. Stuart Buck says:

    I’ll grant most of your adjectives, but I can’t help doubting “unaffected.” Are you sure? How you subjectively feel about any aesthetic experience surely has to be shaped by the cumulative weight all of your previous aesthetic experiences, doesn’t it? Maybe you are desensitized to certain things; on the other hand, maybe your sensitivity is heightened when you see a surprising twist on a familiar trope. So . . . “unaffected”? Can you ever really be sure that the aesthetic experience you have today would have been the same had you not had various other experiences in the past)?

  11. Stuart Buck says:

    Superfluous parenthesis there.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    When you’re describing your own experience, I think the caveat “as far as I can tell” and “or so it seems to me” always comes along for the ride: we can’t run experimental studies of our own lives.

  13. Stuart Buck says:

    Fair point.

    Would you agree that there’s anything different between parents who only have to worry about their son looking at Cheryl Tiegs, vs. parents who have to worry that their kids will find (or be emailed) stuff like this?

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    “Two Girls” actually strikes me as pinning down what the concern is really about. I think there’s something historically intensely precise about media panics, that it’s something that stretches from radio forward, and is tied very closely to changes in the household, the family and childhood in the 20th Century. This is not to say that there wasn’t a vaguely similar reaction to printed books in the 17th Century, etc., but this is way more focused. Because if you go back to the 18th Century, I think you find not only that European children, especially of the elites, were way more aware of scatalogical and sexual references, you find even literary work that’s pretty…vivid…Rabelais most notably. I’m not saying “Two Girls” is something I’d welcome showing up in my kid’s email, but that the cultural backdrop against which we regard that as an intrusive new presence is maybe shorter than we commonly think.

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