Everyone likes to make fun of modern helicopter parents. Get a group of 40-ish men reminiscing about their childhoods and you’ll hear things like, “These poor bubble-wrapped Oprafied kids! Why, in my day, we poured ground glass on our pancakes and chewed the dishes like breath mints. After we finished, I’d grab my Kenner stainless-steel tomahawk, my brother would grab his Hasbro single-action Colt Navy revolver, and we’d play cowboys and Indians. Once my dad told me, ‘Son, I’d rather see your sister in a whorehouse than you in a seat belt.’ To make his point, he beat me bloody with a sjambok. That was my ninth birthday.”
(I refer to men because their bull sessions are the ones I’m allowed to sit in on. Women probably keep their own ledger of passage-into-womanhood rites sacrificed on the altar of overprotectiveness. I hope one day they’ll open it to me.)
Today, pediatrician Rahul Parikh suggests that the Internet, like the real world, might be safer for kids than worst-case-scenario stories, and even expert opinion, might tempt parents to believe. Responding to a report issued last March by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Parikh writes:
Yet accurate numbers about how often teens are exposed to or affected by e-risks don’t exist. You may, for example, learn that sexting is rare and that only 4 percent of teenagers have sent sexually explicit messages or images on their cell phones, but another survey may tell you the number is as high as 30 percent. Disparate numbers exist for other e-risks as well, mostly because these surveys have wildly variable definitions of what they’re measuring (the more acts of cruelty you include under your description of “cyberbullying,” the more likely you’ll get a “yes” from your subjects) as well as the age range of subjects.
Sameer Hinduja is a professor of criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University, whose expertise is cyberbullying and other e-risks. His research suggests that about 20 percent of youth have been either victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying. “That’s not a statistic we should ignore, but it’s also not an epidemic either,” he said. In a report to the FCC written by researchers at Harvard, the authors noted that the prevalence of cyberbullying is similar to that of offline bullying. The report also notes that contrary to popular perception, cyberbullies are rarely anonymous. Most online bullying victims know their perpetrators, and half are in school with them. Perhaps the most important question to ask is whether kids who are bullied online are in any more danger than those bullied in the schoolyard. Hinduja believes they are not.
There are similar perception and reality discrepancies with online sexual predators. Barry Glassner, the president of Lewis and Clark University, is a sociologist whose expertise is media studies. In 2000, Glassner wrote a respected book called “The Culture of Fear.” In an updated version of the book released last year, he looked at the well-publicized statistic that “1 in every 7 young people has been sexually solicited online,” which came from a University of New Hampshire study seized upon by child advocates who spread it in the name of Internet safety. But Glassner points out that less than 10 percent of those solicitations were between adults and teens. In fact, almost half of cases were teens soliciting other teens. (In the rest of the cases, the ages were unknown.) That doesn’t necessarily make it acceptable, but is it really that different from two teens passing notes during English class?
Parikh also makes the point that “Facebook depression” may in fact represent a reversal of cause and effect.
Believe it or not, I’ve seen adults bully each other in cyberspace — with all the abandon of youth, and all the art of age. Back in the late 1990s, I was a regular in a chatroom that catered, as a friend put it, to people who were “bright, educated and neurotic.” Basically, everyone was either an overmedicated grad student, terrified of the future, or a fallen professional, bitter over the past. That combination proved just as lethal as it sounds. We tended to be pretty cagey in our public posts, so taking down an opponent became a game of emotional Battleship. First, you had to make an educated guess on what this person might be sensitive about, then you had to allude to it in a way that made you look both refined and cool. If you came out swinging, you’d brand yourself a boor. If you aimed at a weak spot that turned out not to exist, then you’d stand accused of projecting. Later, when I saw the French film Ridicule, which depicted the million and one rules that once governed dissing at Versailles, I thought, “That was us.”
It’s a good thing I don’t have any kids. If I did, they’d hear nothing but, “In my day, when we bullied each other online, spelling and punctuation counted…”
Ah, well. More ground glass for the pancakes.