"The Rough-and-Tumble Online Universe Traversed by Young Cybernauts" is not the most promising headline for a NY Times trend piece. Nor is the lede, which reads like rejected copy for Season 1 of "To Catch a Predator." The Times is reporting on a documentary on PBS's Frontline, which
dregs up the fears about the Internet that have floated around since the 90s. The Times grossly misrepresented the documentary; updates below. Problem is, these fears are unfounded, and the Internet is practically safer for kids than their own homes. I shall now demonstrate this with a truckload of stats, logic, and some admittedly unfair anecdotal evidence.
Thanks to Chris Hansen and his team of pedophile hunters at Dateline, everyone has learned two things: First, that you should only approach underage girls you've met in person, and second, that the Internet is full of dirty men who want to rape your daughter.
Well, engage in consensual sex with your daughter. "To Catch a Predator" involves voluntary meetings, not secret stalkers. Fear of unintended contact with predators is far more often based on urban legend and a few highly publicized stories. In fact, during the growth of the Internet from 1990 to 2000, estimated sexual abuse cases fell 40%. As of 2004, 85% of child abuse and sexual abuse was committed by the victims' family, with only 9% of abuse cases coming from outside a child's immediate circle of normally trusted adults. A kid is statistically ten times as likely to get jumped by Mom, Dad, or Grandpa as by an Internet stranger.
So much for the Internet as a hive of predators. But it could still be a place for bullying. Oh yes! So could school. Over 1 in 10 kids grades 6-10 surveyed in an academic study said they've been bullied (another 13% said they've bullied others, and 6% swung both ways). The nice thing (in this case) about the Internet is you can't punch someone through it. The other nice thing is that you can document everything over it. There will be the occasional high-profile "MySpace suicide" like Megan Meier's (in which the fake profile that allegedly drove Meier to suicide was a hoax by the neighbors), and everyone will focus on the one part of the story that depended on the Internet, but the truth is that online bullying is a lot more detectable and preventable than real-world abuse.
Frontline also points out that, surprise, kids can get loads of porn online. Not going to argue this. But why is it a bad thing? Thanks to the abstinence-only sex education promoted by the Clinton and Bush administrations (and largely uncriticized by presidential hopefuls), parents and peers still bear the full burden of teaching sexuality to youth. But kids, or at least boys, can find porn faster than their parents can figure out how to give "the talk," so they end up seeing quite a lot that they don't understand, but feels really right. As comedian Ze Frank said, learning how to have sex from watching porn is like learning how to drive from watching monster truck rallies, but it at least gets some of the basics down.
And teens are reaching past porn to find real information about sex. Nikol Hasler of the Midwest Teen Sex Show, told me she gets hundreds of e-mails a day about her show, and many are from teens asking sex-ed questions. (Male teens mostly ask if their dicks are normal.) She wants to create a forum to accompany her weekly web show, somewhere between the unmoderated forums where teens already work out sex through awkward flirtation, and the hypermoderated forums that can squelch "stupid questions" as much as a real-world classroom.
Frontline also addresses a particularly tricky area: pro-anorexia web sites. I can't deny that anorexics might find the same Internet benefit as Rubik's Cube solvers: Whereas before, there might be only one anorexic girl in a classroom (or so she thinks), finding thousands of sympathetic anorexics can normalize and encourage her anorexia, creating a "safe haven" that further drives her away from confronting her problem. The only hope here may be to catch the problem in real life. Again, this is only a reflection of a large offline problem and a long-term rise in eating disorders since as early as the 1930s.
So in the real world, kids are being preyed upon by their parents, beaten up at school, and shamed by teachers for wanting to have sex. On the Internet, they're talking more freely with their peers, keeping tabs on each other, and busting a nut without getting each other pregnant. It's not a sanitized world, but neither is the real one. The biggest problem is the lack of understanding that drives parents to shame and control their kids until they break all trust and know nothing about their children's online activity. Thanks, Frontline.
UPDATE: A publicist from Frontline noted that I apparently hadn't watched the documentary and said it's available online. Frontline's segment on predators does focus on the fears of parents and other media coverage, but the show gives generous time to danah boyd and other commentators that support a more balanced view of kids on the Internet. The fearmongering came mostly from the Times' poor representation of the show. My fault for not finding the original footage.