Parenting with the Internet

‘Start at the apocalypse and work back.” That’s how Mary Aiken describes her approach to her role as a forensic cyberpsychologist—an expert in digital behavior and crime. “My job, as I see it, is to be fully armed with real insights and information, both open-eyed and imaginative, about potential risks so I can be prepared for the worst-case scenario.” And so that she can prepare us, as parents, for it. In her book The Cyber Effect, recently released in paperback, Aiken pulls no punches, explaining, “The variety of unsupervised and age-inappropriate content to explore online is almost limitless. And the number of children exposed to it grows every hour.”

If those sentences make your heart beat a little faster, that’s the point. As Aiken notes, when a risk is “unpleasant to consider,” there is “often a strong desire to overlook it.” Some readers may dismiss Aiken’s views as too alarmist, but there is good reason to believe that her pessimism—she often presents the worst-case scenarios for online decency, morality, and safety—is justified.

Technophiles often defend the Internet on the grounds that it’s just another in a long line of innovations that have elicited unwarranted fear. Aiken argues that lives lived on screens are different:

Our instincts have evolved to handle face-to-face interactions, but once we go into cyberspace, these instincts fail us. We are impaired, as if we had been given keys to a car but not learned how to drive. We need more tools and more knowledge. Because if you spend time online, you are likely to encounter a far greater variety of human behavior than you have before—from the vulnerable to the criminal, from the gleeful and altruistic to the dark and murderous.

Indeed, Aiken notes that the places we tend to think of as physically and emotionally safest—our own bedrooms, our own homes, places where we are surrounded by our own families—are nowadays often the places where we err in letting down our guard. Two generations ago, even with televisions and landline telephones bringing the outside world into the home, it was still reasonable to feel relatively private and safe in the familiar, familial home environment. No more. Today’s communication tools bring us into instant contact with human behavior we would rarely or never encounter in the physical world. At best, this easy interface with varieties of strangeness can transform our interests and alter our personalities. At worst, it can warp our longings and deprave our moral judgment.

Consider: Would Anthony Weiner have gotten in trouble without the Internet? There’s no evidence he was flashing people on the subway before he started taking pictures of his private parts and sending them around from his phone. Maybe there really is, as Aiken argues, something about the way the Internet removes us from other people’s reactions that makes us more likely to engage in certain behaviors.

Another example: interest in bondage or sadomasochism. Two or three decades ago, “a person with a fetish or guilty pleasure of his or her own had to dig around in the public library for a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s writings, go to an art-house cinema,” or otherwise make an effort to get hold of the desired pornographic content. (In the 1980s, even pornographic magazines devoted less than 17 percent of their content to such imagery, Aiken writes, offering a statistic that makes the reader wonder how it was obtained.) But now, two crucial barriers have been lowered: It takes much less work to find very specific smut, and the social shame that might once have inhibited the search has all but disappeared. Today “there are more than 3.5 million members of the Fetlife community [a social networking site for the BDSM lifestyle], and they’ve shared more than 19 million photos and 172,000 videos, participated in 4.7 million discussions, and created 1.7 million blog posts.” Is there any doubt that modern technologies have not only sated people’s appetite for such content but also, paradoxically, whetted it?

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Following the lead of the late psychologist Al Cooper, Aiken says it is the “anonymity, accessibility, and affordability” associated with the Internet that have been changing sexual interests and behaviors. Those three As also make it easier for people to engage in dangerous and illegal behavior. She describes places on the web that most of us are not willing to visit, let alone think about our kids visiting. Take the “dark web,” for instance. It is estimated that in the two years following the arrest of Ross Ulbricht and the shutting down of Silk Road in 2013, “the number of products available on Darknets” doubled to 50,000—from illegal drugs to fake birth certificates to alcohol, art, and counterfeit currency.

In short, Aiken argues that the Internet and today’s tools for instant, universal communication help to “normalize” a lot of behavior that otherwise would not be remotely acceptable. Whether it’s cyberbullying—the recent case of the young woman whose text messages encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide comes to mind—or online piracy or the purchase of illegal substances or the consumption of hardcore pornography, online interactions are qualitatively different from their analogues in the physical world. It is easier to cross moral thresholds. And the new technologies are well suited to bring together groups of likeminded people who in the pre-Internet days would be too few and too dispersed to find one another; this means that we and our children can step unwittingly into “communities” of people we might never otherwise come into contact with.

The word “cyberspace” may strike some readers as fusty and dated, but Aiken uses it liberally. Cyberspace is “an odd and yet familiar” place, she writes. “And like all places, it has distinct characteristics that have the ability to affect us profoundly, and we seem to become different people, feel new feelings, forge new ties, acquire new behaviors, and fight new or stronger impulses.” We struggle to “keep pace with rapidly evolving behavior, new mores, new norms, new manners, and even new mating rituals.”

Aiken rightly argues it’s time that we slow things down—particularly we parents. Many parents act as though they are waiting for some conclusive proof that the time their kids spend on screens is harming them. If this were almost any other matter—from car seats to pajamas to breakfast cereal—parents would adopt a precautionary principle: Let’s not use X product until we know that it’s completely safe. But when it comes to computers, tablets, and smartphones, parents have taken the opposite view: Let’s keep using the tech until we have a 25-year, 1,000-person, peer-reviewed survey that tells us we are doing it wrong. As Aiken writes, “We don’t have time to wait for more new fields to arise and create their own longitudinal studies.”

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This is where Jean Twenge comes in. Her new book does not start with the apocalypse and work backward—but then her job is not to investigate crimes. It is to understand a whole generation.

Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is most frequently cited for her work on millennials and particularly the high levels of “narcissism” she found in that generation. But her new book is about the generation born in 1995 and after—what she calls the “iGen.” Its members “grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.” The smartphone, Twenge says, has profoundly shaped their childhoods. “The average teen checks her phone more than eighty times a day.”

If Aiken’s work is meant to scare parents straight, Twenge’s sounds a quieter alarm. While Aiken started by asking questions about technology and what it can do to us, Twenge started by asking questions about human beings and then wondering how they became like this. And while Aiken’s work is generally devoted more to the content of what we will find when we go online, Twenge takes a closer look at the medium than the message.

Not all the news about this generation is bad, Twenge reports. The iGen kids have lower levels of teen pregnancy, fewer sexual partners, and lower rates of drunk driving. Compared with previous generational cohorts of teens, they are less likely to get into physical fights at school, less likely to argue with their parents, and more likely to spend time with their families.

But if you dig a little deeper to find out why it is that today’s teens’ lives seem to involve fewer risks and less outwardly dangerous behavior, the answers will dishearten you. When Twenge asks 17-year-old Kevin about what kinds of parties he goes to, he tells her that he almost never attends one. “People party because they’re bored—they want something to do. Now we have Netflix—you can watch series nonstop. There’s so many things to do on the Web.”

Parents have been lulled into believing that because their children are not out drinking and driving or contracting STDs or getting pregnant too young they are therefore safe. Up to a point, this is a reasonable supposition. Indeed, some parents have steered their children toward more time at home and online because they think it is safer and easier to monitor.

But this time online brings dangers of its own. Twenge draws on the findings of large-scale, longitudinal studies, writing that “the data from these surveys are stark: teens’ depressive symptoms have skyrocketed in a very short period of time. The number of teens who agreed [with the statement] ‘I feel like I can’t do anything right’ reached all-time highs in recent years, zooming upward after 2011.” Not only has there been a spike in the percentage who say “Many of my friends have a better life than me,” more teens simply agree with the statement “My life is not useful.”

Twenge goes to great lengths to isolate the causes of these trends. Indeed, by the time she is done trying to explain why it is that instances of all these mental health problems have shot up in the past decade, there can be little doubt as to their cause. She has looked at kids across racial, income, and geographic lines. Boys and girls from all kinds of families. If you want to know what has rocked their world, it is technology.

The use of social media is not only correlated with a high degree of depression, but it has also crowded out the activities that one might generally see as the antidotes. Teens are spending less time outside, less time in the company of friends, less time on schoolwork, on after-school jobs, on reading for pleasure, on sleep, on volunteer work, on political activism, on religious activities, and even on romantic relationships. Meanwhile, these teens are subject to kinds of peer pressure that are novel and powerful.

If we want to understand the effects of so much screen time—not just the apocalyptic scenarios of self-cutting, suicide, revenge porn, and sex trafficking—we have to understand the normal and healthy parts of life our children are giving up. All of the things that make them well-rounded people, able to try new things, interact with other people, and gain some satisfaction from their accomplishments are being pushed aside. Twenge says these young people “are both the physically safest generation and the most mentally fragile.”

The only question now is what parents are going to do about it.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.

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