There is a large community that believes that sites and services such as MySpace are genuinely dangerous and that it is irresponsible to allow children to simply wander through them at will.
As one person writes to me from Montana, for example, "they are the online equivalent of kids attending a cocktail party and mixing with adult strangers of every shape and motivation."
I appreciate and share this concern for the safety of children. But my reaction is tempered by what I would consider to be a sense of proportion. Specifically, when presented with something like MySpace, I ask, first, how dangerous it is, and second, whether the proposed measure makes sense given the level of danger.
The concern here, I think, isn't that some stranger will use a MySpace account to hunt down a child. There's no evidence that I have seen showing that a child is in more danger online than, say, in the home. Parents and friends continue to be the major abusers of children. MySpace hasn't changed that.
The concern is that unfettered and unrestrained access to the adult world exposes children to ideas and behaviours that are disturbing, ideas and behaviours that children are not yet ready to comprehend, much less emulate as children do. And the concern is that parents and teachers do not know enough about the internet to understand the impact of prolonged exposure to the adult world online.
Fair enough. I think this is a good point. We know that media has an impact on children. That's why advertisers advertise; they would not spend the hundreds of millions of dollars if such advertisements did not change attitudes and (hence) increase sales. And we know, therefore, that what children see on the internet will change their attitudes.
Some of this impact has been documented already through the work of people like Marc Prensky and others studying the 'digital generation'. It is probably too early to draw a causal connection between new media and the attitudes of today's young, since so many other influences (such as old media) are still at play. Nonetheless, when we see that children seem to be constantly online and connected to their friends, that they explore and take chances on their own, and that they expect the answers to always be in Google, we can point to the internet and say it is certainly having some effect.
But is it a negative effect? The writer from Montana points out, "I fear that we are raising a generation that will be unable to manually sift through text to determine arguments, core points or concepts."
I fear this too, perhaps more acutely, for as an expert in logic I am constantly concerned about the basic errors in reasoning and criticism I see every day around me. My own observation, though, is that people who spend more time online are more able to deal with these issues, that the people who accept things uncritically - especially when presented from an authoritative source - are those who are uneducated and those who are mostly offline.
In other words, what I am saying is that my own observation suggests that prolonged exposure to the internet makes someone more able to reason critically, not less. And in my more cynical days I suggest that it is this increased capacity to reason that is sparking concern among some adults.
Because, frankly, it seems to me that a lot of the things kids (and adults!) are told are dangerous simply aren't so, and are reflective more of a prevailing morality than of a concern for the well being of a child. I do not see, for example, how the mere presentation of naked humans is dangerous to a child, and I am indeed much more concerned about the images of abuse and violence broadcast on television in the news and in shows like C.S.I.
Nor am I concerned about things like discussions of drugs and politics and religion - it seems to me healthy for children to be exposed to the multiple views (and the more than occasional hypocrisy) that surround such issues. Being presented a wide spectrum of opinion, rather than a single point of view, teaches someone very quickly to draw their own conclusion, and to not depend on someone else (no, not even parent or teacher) for the right answer.
This is all reasonable, but I think the point of the 'cocktail party' example is that children online are presented not merely with adult behaviour, but with adults behaving badly.
"Look at who is modeling online behavior in myspace - it is largely adults who post provocative photos and language. Kids see this, take it as acceptable and cool, and do it themselves. Again, typical behavior for teens. Add a lack of modeling of positive or acceptable behavior in this venue by teachers and parents, and voila - negative models yield negative results. How much time do you spend posting things on myspace? I don't. Who does? - people with an axe to grind, show offs, exhibitionists, etc."
I think there is no question that there is a lot of bad behaviour on the internet, and even the briefest observation shows that it is the adults, and not the kids, who are behaving badly. And in spaces such as MySpace, it does seem that the only adult presence is a negative one.
Is our best response, though, to kick the kids off MySpace? My first reaction seems to be that we are punishing the kids for the actions of the badly behaved adults.
After all, if a grown man came to a school playground and started swearing and drinking and making lewd remarks, we would react by removing the adult, not by preventing children from accessing the park.
The point is, it is up to adults to moderate the behaviour of adults. And if children are not being presented proper role models, then it is up to adults to ensure that such models are available to them. And the way to do that is not to shield them from all possible role models, because that negates the benefit of the internet. The way to do it is to be present in this space, to moderate the adults who are behaving badly, and to ourselves act as reasonable role models.
I wrote the other day, of the bullying and the cheating and the other bad behaviours that kids engage in online, "it seems to me that the problem isn't MySpace - the problem is the school. I mean, why not look at these behavours - now that they are public - and ask why students engage in them. Instead of trying to hide everything again by blocking MySpace, or to punish people after the fact, why not ask, 'what would lead a student to think that this is appropriate?'"
And while I didn't answer that question, to me the answer is pretty evident: they think such behaviours are appropriate because they see instances of such behaviours all around them, and not the least by the authority figures governing their lives, by their teachers, their parents and their elected officials.
The children act badly, not because they are exposed to MySpace, but because, in all aspects of life, we show them with our own actions that such behaviour is acceptable.
And - most importantly for me - when we do things like ban them from sites like MySpace, we are continuing to show them that such behaviour is acceptable. Because we conjure up dangers that simply aren't there, because we act arbitrarily and with threat of force rather than with reason, and because we then hypocritically engage in exactly the behaviours we are trying to teach children not to emulate.
Children, if they understand anything, understand justice, which is why it is essential to employ precision calipers when dividing the chocolate cake among them. They know that punishing an entire age group for the actions of a few is unfair. They know that prohibiting an action, or a web site, just in case they act badly some time in the future, is unfair.
Finally, children have a sense of proportion. They know that being on MySpace is importantly not like being at a cocktail party because they can hit 'disconnect' at any time. When in the actual presence of adults, kids are powerless - they cannot escape and they cannot fight back. And sometimes those adults they must trust the most turn on them.
Unless we lock kids in their rooms all day, kids will interact with adults. Far better that they interact with them, and learn of the dangers, online rather than in person. Far better that their first ancounter with a child molester is in a chat room rather than a city park or a movie theatre. Far better they interact in an enviroment that can be monitored and watched very easily by parents and police.
When we think of it - and we should - the rise of sites like MySpace is a boon to parents and teachers. After all, so far as I can judge, kids have always pushed the limits of authority (I know I certainly did). But now they are doing it in a public space, where we can see what they are doing, and if we can restrain ourselves a bit, and give the kids some room to grow, we can watch out for the really dangerous things, and act before anything really bad happens.
Things like bullying, for example, become much more evident. A child being abused may be able to express this in various ways online. Suicidal trends may appear on a website far sooner than in the home or classroom. Excessive use of drugs or alcohol will be reflected online and hidden in the home. And so much more! Why would we block this, the child's best hope of letting us know that something is wrong?
It is, as I said, about the level of danger, and about the proportionality of the response. And it seems to me that spaces such as MySpace are less dangerous to kids than the family television or the neighborhood park, and it seems to me that banning kids from MySpace altogether is, in that light, an excessive response.
And, indeed, is there is any action I would recommend that we as adults take, it would be to behave as adults. That, more than any other action we take, will have the most profound impact on our children. Though, I admit, asking adults to act like adults may be more idealistic than practical.