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The Myths Of Growing Up Online

Alarmist and polarized rhetoric is distorting important new findings about the risks and benefits of children’s use of the Internet.
September 3, 2004

For almost a decade now, the debate about youth and new media technologies has been polarized around two conflicting mythslet’s call them the Myth of the Columbine Generation and the Myth of the Digital Generation. The first is driven by fear, the other hope, but both distort the reality kids and parents must negotiate in the online world, and both exaggerate the centrality of digital media in children’s lives.

Parents, educators, and policymakers can get whiplash trying to respond to the competing pull of these two myths. One pulls us toward wiring every classroom in the country so that kids may enjoy the benefits of digital access, the other mandates filtering programs in school and library computers since kids can’t be trusted once they log on.

In a classic version of the Columbine Generation argument, Eugene Provenzo Jr., a professor of education at the University of Chicago, argues that recent school shootings are the “result” of a “social experiment” in giving children unfettered access to pornography and violence. By contrast, journalist Jon Katz, in his books Virtuous Reality and Geeks, offers a vivid version of the Digital Generation perspective, celebrating the ways that the online world has liberated children from the constraints of their own neighborhoods and the limitations of their narrow-minded parents.

Anyone who has read my column over the past few years knows I fall much closer to Katz than Provenzo. But if we are being honest, the truth lies somewhere in the huge space in between those two overstatements. When I went into schools around the country following the Columbine shootings, it was clear that teachers, parents, and students had heard plenty about the dangers of going online and little about the benefits. The case that growing up online was going to produce a more socially connected, better informed, and more creative generation was a perspective that was needed to counterbalance the hysteria being generated by the most sensationalistic news stories. I remember one student exclaiming, “Why haven’t we be told this before?”

As time has passed, I have felt a greater need to pull back from such either-or arguments, yet to do so seems like unilateral disarmament as long as the culture warriors are ready to pounce on any concession. I have become increasingly concerned by the ways that television discussions, newspaper articles, and government hearings are structured around the assumption that this debate can be reduced to two opposing sides, usually pushed to their extremesmaking it impossible for more moderate perspectives to be heard.

A case in point: a conference held this summer at the University of London brought together educators, activists, and scholars from more than 40 different countries to examine the research on the impact of new media on children’s mental and social development, and on education, family, and community life. David Buckingham, one of the event’s organizers, opened the sessions by challenging us to move beyond the easy answers and to acknowledge the complexities and contradictions our research was uncoveringgood advice that was hard to follow.

A highlight of the conference was London School of Economics professor Sonia Livingstone’s announcement of the preliminary findings of a major research initiative called UK Children Go Online. This project involved both quantitative and qualitative studies on the place of new media in the lives of some 1,500 British children (ages 9 to 19) and their parents. The study’s goal was to provide data that policymakers and parents could draw on to make decisions about the benefits and risks of expanding youth access to new media. Remember that phrasebenefitsandrisks.

According to the study, children were neither as powerful nor as powerless as the two competing myths might suggest. As the Myth of the Digital Generation suggests, children and youth were using the Internet effectively as a resource for doing homework, connecting with friends, and seeking out news and entertainment. At the same time, as the Myth of the Columbine Generation might imply, the adults in these kids’ lives tended to underestimate the problems their children encountered online, including the percentage who had unwanted access to pornography, had received harassing messages, or had given out personal information.

Livingstones report arrives at a pivotal moment: after decades of state-supported broadcasting, the British government is deregulating media content and opening the airwaves to greater commercial development. The number of media channels in British homes is expandingand parents are being asked to play gatekeepers determining what media entered their home without being given the training or resources needed to do that job properly.

The London papers on the morning following Livingstone’s presentation were full of news about the parents of a young murder victim who were suing Rockstar Games, the maker of Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto, because they believed that violent video games had inspired their sons killer. Livingstones extensive study made it into a sidebar to the Daily Mails front page story, “Murder by Playstation,” as simply one more indicator of how digital media were leading children down the wrong path. The Daily Mail readers learned that the study had found that “children as young as nine are routinely exposed to pornographic, violent, and disturbing images online” and that “parents were largely ignorant of what their children were looking at.” The conference had been reduced to Livingstone’s report; Livingstone’s report had been reduced to its discussion of children and pornography; and the discussion of children and pornography had been reduced to only the most alarming statistics.

Livingstones study did indeed find that 57 percent of 9 to 19 year olds who went online at least once a week had seen porn on the Internet. But broken down by age, the statistics looked somewhat different, and less shocking: only 21 percent of children 9 to 11 had encountered pornography, compared with 80 percent of 18-19 year olds.

As a culture, we have profoundly mixed views about how much adolescents should be protected from adult realities and almost uniform agreement that children should be protected from pornography. Childhood may be an age of innocence but adolescence is a time of transitions and sexual discoveries. Most adult menand a good number of adult womenborn since the 1950s probably looked at Playboy in their teens; in that context, it’s hardly surprising that most teens today encounter porn on the Internet. The challenge is how to protect children from premature exposure to pornography and how to help youth think through their initial encounters, wanted or unwanted, with sexually explicit material. Right now, we aren’t doing a great job with either.

The shock value of the Daily Mails story hinged on the idea that “children” were accessing sexually explicit material behind their parents’ backs. But the study actually showed something quite different. Based on her interviews, Livingstone cautioned that the youngest children often didnt fully understand which images their parents saw as pornographic. Some felt that all nudity constituted pornography, for example, though many adults would disagree.

Still, lets assume that a certain percentage of British youth are encountering hardcore pornography. Statistics about digital porn are only meaningful when looked at in the context of other media. And according to Livingstone’s study of British children, 52 percent of respondents reported seeing pornography on television (presumably through cable or pay per view), 46 percent had seen adult magazines, and 30 percent had seen explicit videos. In a country where postcards advertising prostitution are plastered inside most phone booths, one encounters unwanted pornography just trying to phone home. Internet access increases the risk of exposure to pornography but not as dramatically as many people might imagine.

For the most part, the children responded to such chance encounters in ways many adults would find appropriate. According to the study, 65 percent of children and adolescents surveyed said they deleted pornographic files without opening them and 56 percent of those who accidentally clicked onto a porn site said they left immediately. I get more vile and disgusting spam every morning than I care to look at before breakfast and don’t have trouble believing that many kids find themselves in similar situations. That said, it would naive to deny that a fair number of adolescents take advantage of the privacy and ease of accessing porn online to deliberately explore some forbidden sites. (I suspect a high percentage of my readers have done the same.)

The kids’ reactions to porn was equally telling: 54 percent did not think too much about it, 20 percent thought it was disgusting, and less than 10 percent found it appealing. Children and youth, no less than adults, were concerned about the place of porn on the Internet.

One can certainly debate these findings. Did the children tell the truth to the adult researchers? Do some kids exaggerate their access to porn to sound cool and mature? Is pornography something any of usadults or childrencan discuss with total honesty? Until we find ways around such problems, these figures are as good as we are apt to get and Livingstone’s combination of survey collection and more extended interviews helps to ground the findings in a more complex picture of these kids’ everyday experience.

Overall, these findings are grounds for reflectionbut not hysteria. Livingstone respects the concerns of parents who think any exposure to pornography is a gross violation of childhood innocence. Yet she rejects moral panic in favor of a more pragmatic focus on what should be done to reduce the amount of pornographic spam, to help children develop greater skills in protecting themselves from exposure to unwanted images, and to educate parents about the challenges of protecting children in the digital environment. And, we might add, to help parents develop the courage to have meaningful and age-appropriate conversations with their offspring about sex and pornography.

As the Livingstone report notes in its conclusion: “Some may read this report and consider the glass half full, finding more education and participation and less pornographic or chat room risk than they had feared. Others may read this report and consider the glass half empty, finding fewer benefits and greater incidence of dangers than they would have hoped for.” Unfortunately, many more people will encounter media coverage of the research than will read it directly, and its nuanced findings are almost certainly going to be warped beyond recognition. If we cant talk about youth access to new media thoughtfully and calmly, then we have little hope of avoiding the greatest dangers or achieving the best potentials these media offer us.

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