No, The Internet Is Not Ruining Childhood

Here’s a statistic: some 250,000 children around the world are currently fighting as child soldiers. Every day, 22,000 children die due to poverty. Seventy-two million children of school age are not in school. One billion live below the poverty line. But here in America, we’re upset because our kids spend too much time on the Internet. Under the faintly hysterical headline “Tech is killing childhood,” Salon has published a bunch of excerpts from The Big Disconnect, a book by child psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, arguing that the Internet is catalyzing a “suffocating squeeze on developmental growth.” Is this really true? Or is it just this generation’s equivalent of “stop watching so much TV and go outside?”

Look, I appreciate that cultural relativism is ultimately unhelpful in this context — every society deals with its own travails, just like every individual does. But equally, the hand-wringing about the effect that technology is having on childhood seems to be a constant feature of our cultural discourse at the moment, and it’s tiresome. To an outsider, America can be a curiously infantilized country. Every nation values its children, but the US can take its love of childhood to faintly hysterical levels — perhaps because this love is tied into another cultural trope, the expectation of being able to be in control at all times.

In this respect, it’s easy to see how the Internet can be perceived as presenting an existential threat to childhood’s integrity. It presents a challenge to the idea that parents can control and dictate the limits of their children’s experience — it’s a big old window to the outside world, and presents all the challenges of that outside world. It’s uncontrollable and unfiltered and occasionally terrifying. But, y’know, so is the world. And honestly, kids who grow up with that knowledge tend to deal with the world better.

Let’s also not forget that the Internet provides a wealth of opportunity for kids to expand their horizons. It’s a godsend for any sort of teenager growing up in a small town where there’s no one who shares their interests. And even before then, it’s a historically unprecedented wonder. Our kids grow up with the sum total of human knowledge, literally at their fingertips. This is amazing. I’m old enough to remember going to the library and wrestling with the Dewey Decimal System, only to find that when I finally worked out how to get hold the information I was looking for, someone had stolen the book in question months ago anyway. Today’s children never have to worry about such things. And we’re driving ourselves crazy because they might see some tits every so often?

This may sound idealistic, but shit, so is Steiner-Adair’s view of childhood. Take this passage, for instance: “Once upon a time, the canon for childhood was fairly simple, particularly at this age: do your schoolwork, play fair, obey your parents, and honor your family. This was the age of friendship songs, a budding sense of justice, and knowing right from wrong. Of taking pride in practicing values like respect, kindness, and sharing because they represented maturity.”

Really? As anyone who actually went to primary school can attest, the notion that children are a bunch of angelic cherubs gamboling in the soft light of their unalloyed innocence is largely a load of horseshit. Children are humanity at its most unconstrained, with everything good and bad that implies. They’re just as capable of cruelty as they are of inspiring delight. This is an uncomfortable truth, which is perhaps why it’s largely ignored in art, or at least confined to movies wherein the bullies invariably have “issues” that conveniently explain away their behavior, and invariably get their comeuppance in the end. Otherwise, children’s moral purity goes unchallenged.

Steiner-Adair’s argument seems to go along the lines that the Internet catalyzes a fast-forwarding of childhood, wherein the time in which children learn not to be horrible is somehow skipped over. If you continue this line of thinking, though, you could argue that children who grow up in the country are better off that kids who grow up in the city, because they’re given more time to “have a childhood.” That may well be true, but ask any city kid if they’d rather have grown up in the middle of nowhere and they’d probably tell you that they wouldn’t swap their urban upbringing for the world.

This is entirely anecdotal, of course, but so is pretty much everything in Steiner-Adair’s article — if there’s any hard data, it’s not cited in the passages that Salon has published. There’s no doubt that the advent of ubiquitous Internet access has changed the terms of childhood. But childhood has never existed in a vacuum. Before the Internet, there were similar bouts of hand-wringing about my generation watching too much television, or spending too long playing arcade games, or playing Dungeons & Dragons, or whatever. Look further back and there were no doubt similar arguments made about the wireless radio, and comic books, and god knows what else.

The idea that childhood has hitherto been an idyllic time of undisturbed magic is chimera — for generations past, there wasn’t time for this mythical idyll because you could just as easily be out of school and into a workhouse by the time you were 12. If adolescence is a 20th-century invention, then so in some ways is the idea of the perfect childhood. In centuries past, children were treated as little adults, to be put to work as soon as they were able. By comparison, the children of today have it pretty good.

And in any case, children are adaptable and far more capable that we tend to give them credit for. If you take the view that they need to be wrapped in existential cotton wool and shielded from all the nasty things, you’re setting yourself up for failure, because kids will find the nasty things. And nasty things will happen to them. My generation got hold of porno mags and terrifying horror movies and all sorts of other stuff, and we did it because we were perversely fascinated by them. Kids want to know about the world.

Clearly the Internet also provides new avenues for bullying, and I’m not in any way trying to belittle or mitigate how traumatic being bullied can be for a kid. Just like pretty much every child of a bookish bent in sports-obsessed Australia, I went through it myself, and it was horrible. But this still doesn’t justify the hysteria about the Internet somehow being the cause of this — it’s a medium, just like the telephone or the nasty handwritten note or the vicious rumor. Dealing with this stuff is part of childhood — a thoroughly unpleasant part, sure, but part nonetheless.

Ultimately, this all comes down to parenting. The Internet, for better or worse, is an integral part of the world we live in, and just like every other aspect of the world, it’s up to parents to do their best to teach kids how to deal with it. Doing so is difficult, but so is raising children.

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