I don’t particularly buy a lot of the worry out there about the overuse of the Internet and youth. Some have claimed that if kids are spending so much time online that they’ll become pathologically antisocial, their intellectual growth will be stunted, or that they will lose the ability to do one thing at a time (e.g., read a book) and do it well. I admit my experience is my own, but if I didn’t have digital spaces growing up I’d have felt even more isolated than I was already. And I think I turned out pretty well.

I’ve noticed, over the years, that people – authority figures in particular – are kind of weird when they talk about youth. While I think a lot of the worry about overuse of technology is directed to people of all ages, there’s always, without fail, a moral panic about how it might affect adolescents. Why? Sometimes there’s a feeling that if something bad happens during those formative years, the child will be irreparably harmed. Sometimes the anxiety stems from the idea that kids are not “mature” or rational like adults, and therefore cannot be exposed to potentially harmful content. But mostly, I think, it’s a worry that kids aren’t going to turn out the way we want them to.

I am frequently reminded of Lesko’s Act Your Age!, an elaborate exploration of how we conceptualize children and youth, how most parents and other authority figures are in a constant state of worry about the “health” of adolescents. My health growing up, by most people’s standards, was pretty poor. Until 8th grade I was literally at the bottom of the curve for average height, and I remember hearing doctors talk with my parents about taking growth horomones. Further, I hated sports and had no ability to do well in any of them. And by middle school, when I missed the memo about acceptable ways boys can perform their gender, I became subject to not only the whispers of my teachers but also the verbal and physical abuse of my peers. While I was a good student, this mattered little in the ongoing dialogue about my health from pre-K until I left for college. It’s fair to say that authority figures who crossed my path were in a constant state of concern.

Back to technology. Is our worry about kids’ overuse of technology about the erosion of their ability to communicate? I think, in fact, that kids are learning how to communicate in ways many of us have to struggle to understand. Is it that they’re not going to be able to sit down and read a book? Something tells me they’re doing a much more intense amount of reading, if not from paper than from (eco-friendly) computer screens. Or is it that since this is a scary new medium that adults don’t quite understand, we’re worried such experiences during youth could prevent kids from becoming the adults we need them to be? Will they still go to law school, meet a nice girl and get married? Or could the corrupting influence of the Internet make them gay or trans, hate God and America, or even result in a life alone in their house with ten cats? Is it, in fact, that adolescence – as a technology to produce specific kinds of adults – is being modified beyond our control?

So am I worried about anything? Yes, definitely. We’re all becoming keenly aware of how the Internet is changing as it has endured a digital industrialization of sorts. As content is modified in the interest of efficiency, the Internet is quickly becoming a place where norms are constructed and reinforced in ways reminiscent of other kinds of media (think commercialization and identity). And further, where there are more opportunities for everyone to present the self and be scrutinized for such presentations at a moment’s notice, I worry about peer review and resulting anxiety. Not only do kids have to worry about meeting acceptable norms at home, on playgrounds, in schools…but they also have to worry about how they present themselves on Facebook and what they talk about in chatrooms. They will quickly learn that there are repercussions for stepping out of line both in person and on the Internet, for they will realize they are under surveillance, constantly watched by peers, authority figures, and what may feel like God zirself.

The days of using the Internet to escape from the sometimes harsh realities of real life may soon be over.

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