Growing up Online, I think would leave much of the audience confused. The plot summary will be brief but will give a few items away. Should you want to use this review to determine whether to watch, I will indicate where the deeper analysis begins.
For an hour PBS’s Frontline explores the lives of teenagers in Morris County NJ, just an hour from NYC by train but is still more small town than not. The assertion is that the subjects of the documentary are the first generation to grow up entirely with the World Wide Web and the rest of the wireless world. Morris County is upper-middle class. It explores the online lives of about half a dozen young men and women and the way they interact with their cell phones and computers. Except for one case, none of the parents take an active role in monitoring the activities of their children’s access. Among the subjects is a girl with anorexia who uses a pro-anorexic site as support; a girl who turned herself into a type of gothic soft core porn model; and a young man who used Spark Notes for summaries to “read” Romeo and Juliet (at least he was honest to say that he felt like he was cheating himself—there is a deep and vicious pun there).
The school these young men and women attend is wired to the hilt. The teachers use smart boards which use finger motions of the teacher to scroll up and down while the kids us laptops. Further, some of the teachers use podcasts to reiterate portions of their lectures that she/he believes to be most cogent.
All of this is fine, but from an academic perspective Growing up Online fails utterly. Walker County Alabama, Blount County Tennessee, or Morgan County Georgia will not be wired like that in the foreseeable future, so a large portion of the documentary is not relevant. These areas are wired, by and large, for PCs and phones, but the schools are still the chalk and board kind.
Before I get to the deeper analysis, what I mention above should be enough to decide to watch it or not (and I recommend it). Plot spoilers below.
Let me cover the fears. The kids are so significantly more mature than their parents want to accept. We are no longer in the stranger danger situation for kids older than 7. A Department of Justice study says that the vast majority of children know how to avoid online predators. What this tells me is that kids and young adults and near adults are off limits from the real dangers because they are online so much of the time. Sexual predators tend to work best in the face to face type encounters or kidnappings with require physical, not cyber context.
I want to go to the next step in this progression. According to Anne Collier (MySpace Unraveled) says this: “Sexual predators are a risk but all the cases . . . [ellipsis indicates a pause for correction] known cases of sexual exploitation involving social networks have involved kids going out looking for a meeting with somebody, [The kids] were not deceived.” She goes farther to say that we need to stop looking at these kids not as victims but as participants. You can argue with this and I won’t stand in the way, but I have provided the source material in case you want to view it within its full context.
Before the last portion, I need to focus on a couple of other things. First the idea that “[The teens] can be their real selves online. I have to agree with an expert who indicates this likely not true—that the self they show is just a hybrid of who they are and who they want to be perceived to be.
Here is a perfect example of the old world and the new world and how the clash caused a rip that I believe is necessary. The Net and the social networks allow for anyone (but young adults in this case) a place to post a diary. It need not all be posted, but some gripes and vents are cathartic ways to blow off steam. I kept a pen and paper diary. I had come out of the closet months before and my mother found my diary. The betrayal caused by the seeking and finding is still in place—she pulled heart and gut right out of me (I had to start keeping it in French so she couldn’t read it anymore).
A mother, Evan, who essentially appointed herself the cyber-police for her school area committed the same general sin. Her son, Cam, was among a group of teens who went to Manhattan to go to a concert. Kids used their cell phones to video tape the event. It wasn’t long before the mother found the footage and sent out letters to the parents of the other kids in the video. Half of the responses were thanks for telling us, the other half were VERY negative and used language I want to use here but will refrain—telling her to mind her own business. Her son withdrew from her and the family but not before accusing his mother of ruining his last 2 years of his high school experience. Go Cam. If Evan cannot trust her own abilities at raised her children to have her values then why would she not be able to trust them at all. Cam was being a teenager. Evan was not being a parent, she was being nosy. She deserves whatever amount of silence Cam can muster. Evan does admit to remembering her own youth but tries to explain it away by saying that being on the opposite side of the equation made things different. My question is how would she have felt had her mother discovered her being a rambunctious 16 year old.
One of the failures of Growing up Online is that it does not cover the identity shift that occurs with the linked gaming systems. Here someone can become nearly anything they want and fight in just about any way you can dream. The only reason I believe this is glossed over at the very beginning (and not again) is that the topic would take more than 50 minutes Frontline is allotted.
I got lost in a relatively free game called Second Life. The first 3 days were so focused on it that I lost 4 pounds due to lack of enough food or water. I was able to step back, but being able to build a person that looked either just like you or like you want o look and to interact with people from other countries who have done the same is no trivial matter. This is why I covered the idea the documentary seemed to have missed.
Finally I have to close in a way the documentary did. A young man, Ryan Halligan, was not only bullied at school, he began to become the victim of a ceaseless cyber-bullying campaign while online at home. Most of us (even adults) maintain some form of chat while we do work or shop. If you are constantly harassed and cannot block people fast enough, then one place of escape (open to everyone else) is cut off. It wasn’t very long after this campaign that the 13 year old boy hanged himself.
The Net is not responsible for any of these activities, positive or negative. The use defines good and bad as much as either word can be defined. ALL that said, and I did say very much, I really do recommend the documentary.
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