Monday, December 04, 2006

Online Addictions, Offline Afflictions

Nick Yee posted yesterday on Terra Nova about Internet addiction. Spurned on by a piece from the San Francisco Chronicle that stated the Internet is "seductive on the surface, but seeded with subterranean hazards", Yee argues for a nuanced understanding of what addiction is and the relationship between external factors like games and other contributors to addictive behavior.
The SF Chronicle article is to me another in a long line of fear-mongering, moral panic-inducing texts that show only the most extreme of downsides and downplay any agency, intelligence, or even responsibility on the part of children. Some of the hazards the author highlights include, along with addictive online gaming, are online bullying, profiteers who market illict goods to children, websites that promote unhealthy behaviors, and communities like MySpace that allow young people to expose themselves, potentially to harm.

If you say that these do sound like legitimate causes for concern, take pause for a moment. While the fact that children are not allowed to vote until they are 18 indicates that we do understand their capacities, responsibilities, and cognitive abilities as different, do we want to return to the past when we understood children as complete innocents we could imprint or impress any beliefs upon? Ethnographic research into children, especially in relation to technology, demonstrates more complex relationships and behaviors. Furthermore, the hazards listed above all incubate in the here and now.... the Internet is a new venue for old problems to be enacted. Bullying started in the schoolyard, as do the psychological grounds for addiction and other self-destructive behaviors. A pro-ana website will not convert a perfectly healthy girl into an anorexic... the seeds must have been already implanted.

Rather than blaming the nebulous web of networks called the Internet, just as we have in the past blamed the television and the radio, parents needs to understand the concept of media literacy and teach their children how to understand the complex tapestry of messages they receive each day. They need to be involved in this type of education, not with Net Nanny programs but with a savvy eye for not just the obvious but for the implicit messages embedded within the most child-friendly sites like (in this case, of rampant consumerism).

So, in a totally different way, I agree with the article's last paragraph: "Cyberspace can be an eye-opening, fun and even magical place to explore. But young voyagers -- and wise parents of those sojourners -- must be keenly aware of the terrain, and even more careful of where they step".

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