Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who's afraid of the Internet?

image from Google.com
If you are over 55, you are in the fastest growing group of Facebook users.  As an astute woman was heard to say recently, maybe that's because everyone younger is already on it.

As a parent and doctor who should know about what teens and young adults are up to, I have been making an effort to understand social media and how it impacts our lives. So I was pleased to read Adam Gopnik's article The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us in the New Yorker last month.  The article is essentially an ingenious book review of a dozen or so books about the joy, threat, fears, possibilities, and dangers of social media and  the Internet.

Gopnik divides the plethora of recent books about the phenomenon into three categories (color mine):

 ...call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

  Since the Internet is here to stay, there is not much point in endorsing the concept of going backwards as the Better-Nevers might.  And since there is very slim, if any, data to go on about the Never-Betters, it seems right to take some sort of middle ground. Gopnik's dissection of the Ever-Was-ers is the most interesting.  He asserts that most forms of media, from the book in the middle ages, to the twentieth century radio and the television and now the Internet have shocked the status quo and made people worry about the corruption of  minds and culture.  Even the novel was a target of concern in Jane Austen's day.  Here is another quote from Gopnik on the current romanticization of the television now that the computer, smartphone and Internet are the current whipping boys:
 Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user.....an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.
So what is a parent to do?  How do we take this information and use it to our advantage as we struggle to raise our children to be healthy, resilient, productive and compassionate human beings.  I think we can extend the scary invention metaphor to the automobile and think about the frightening possibilities and the myriad ways we have grown and adjusted to its presence in our world.  From headlights, to seatbelts, to airbags, to cruise control and dashboard breathalizers, it's taken a century to learn about the risks and clear benefits of this technology.  Ingenious that we are, and unwilling to compromise the clear benefits of automated transportation, we have found our way.  And we will find our way with the Internet as well.

Meanwhile, we continue to educate ourselves and parent in the best ways possible, setting limits and offering an authoritative style to our offspring.  What we don't need to do is succumb to fear or relinquish all of our parenting skills to the technology.  TV dinner anyone?


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