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.