Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A reaction to Frontline and teen safety on the Internet

Last night, PBS Frontline aired an hour documentary “Growing Up Online” about teenagers and the Internet. I reviewed it on my TV blog (look at my profile for links), but as for Internet safety, one general observation or conclusion strikes me “the day after.” That is, that teenagers have sometimes come to view the Myspace and Facebook world as “theirs,” something they can master and reside in when the real world is harsh with them. Indeed, there was coverage of their wanting to keep their activities away from their parents, a contradiction because the open nature of the Internet, with its search engines and generativity, makes it so easy for parents, teachers, principals and future employers or colleges to check up on them – the “reputation defense” problem.

I’ve said that learning to use online resources properly is a little bit like learning to drive a car safely. It happens in certain stages, and requires increasing maturity.

Online life should supplement the life in the real world, not replace it. This is particularly true for teens. Parents should let kids use it for personal purposes once they demonstrate they can take responsibility, and perform in school with decent academic results and some other legitimate “old world” activities, whether athletics, religious, service, chess, music, drama or anything else that gets “real” results and would have done so in the world before the 1990s. One consistent observation is that teens who can perform in public with any talent seem to mature faster in a “real world” sense. There is no real substitute for “performance.”

It gets more “interesting” if you try to make this “rule” for grown-ups. After all, the Internet can provide a real living, as it does now for millions. And, sometimes, teens (as Cameron Johnson demonstrated with his book (again, the books blog) or as two New Jersey teen brothers demonstrated by reverse engineering the iPod, really do create things of measurable economic and personal value. But it is a troubling question to ponder. Think about the fact that two young men recently reverse engineered a Prius to get 100 miles to the gallon.

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