My friend Alex and I were talking over a nice dose of Fro Yo the other day and reflecting on our youth. Of course, when you’re coming of age, you’re bound to make mistakes. Bobby, of The Brady Bunch, learned the hard way why he shouldn’t play ball in the house. Frankie Muniz found out why you shouldn’t kick your dog during a baseball game in My Dog Skip. And I’m not saying that my generation had it any harder than the next, but if you weren’t careful, coming of age could be really, really dangerous for someone our age. As we were thinking back to what it was like growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I think we might have weirded ourselves out just by looking at the prospects. It was after that conversation that I decided that my children would not have access to the internet until they are least sixteen years old. Why did we not listen to NSYNC when they warned us about these “digital get downs?” Nothing safe happens online.
I had no business on the internet as a child, and if you think back, you probably didn’t either. I remember when we got our first computer back in fifth grade–yes, it had CompuServe dial-up internet which allowed you to make a sandwich, walk the dog, and finish a Melville novel between page loading times, but it was the internet, and that was pretty friggin’ cool back in 2000. My brother and I would take turns getting on it, and it’s not like we could do too much damage because it was stationed in our parents’ room. We lived in a very old single wide at the time, so even if my parents were on the other end of the house, if we had something naughty up that made noise, they could hear it without a problem. We never wanted to abuse having a computer… hell, we were just jazzed that we could play Minesweeper any time we wanted to, though neither of us having any idea to this day what that game is about, nor how to play it.
But it wasn’t long until we messed everything up. We had grown tired of 50states.com, which apparently is no longer a website (sigh), so we decided to look up facts about Washington D.C. before I took my trip there with safety patrol. Casey and I gathered around the computer to look up whitehouse.com, and there it was for the world to see… naked. women. We were equal parts embarrassed, intrigued, and filled-with-sin. This friend we had known for such a short amount of time had become our enemy so quickly, and from there, it was clear that the internet was going to be the kind of friend that you just don’t tell your parents about.
But the inadvertent porn via what we thought was a government website was not the problem. Alex and I decided that the problem really started once we got into middle school. Looking back, we were all over the internet in ways that we, nor our parents, really had any idea about. I remember back to my AIM days when I would sit on the computer changing my background and my layout and coming up with my screenname, and it all seemed so harmless… but then I think about all the chatrooms that I would go into and all of the “friends” that I would make on there. And when I talk to people my age about it, it really was not an uncommon thing for people to make friends and exchange screennames with people that we had no idea who they actually were. I had one friend who was 13 and lived in Ohio named Brittany, and we would ask each other all kinds of personal questions, and 12 year old me was on the other side of the computer screen throughly convinced that I had found my soulmate over the internet. In reality, there’s a solid chance that I was not talking to Brittany, or possibly even a child. How we were not all captured by a man named Carl who had an affinity for Mogen David wine and My Little Pony, I will never know.
|Honestly, if I were speaking with a predator, I’d probably
also ask for some M&Ms.
All of the conversations would start out the same: ASL? Just think about it for a minute–why in the hell did a 13 year old need to be telling another 13 year old his or her age/sex/location? Hi, my name is Justin, I’m 13/Boy/Knoxville, TN. Here’s my address… now come grab me so that I can end up being another story told by John Walsh. We giggle at Chris Hansen because he’s always doing the intercept between the pedophile and the decoy on To Catch a Predator, but I have no idea why I’m laughing and judging the idea that these kids’ parents weren’t paying enough attention because my parents totally let me do the same thing. And the one time that I did connect with a stranger online (on MySpace, may it rest in the shadow of Facebook), I suppose that I was lucky enough that the person I was meeting was an actual fifteen year old girl and not some strange predator because when I asked my mom to drop me off at the movies to meet her, my mom just agreed to it, like that’s a normal thing. All I had to protect me was an absurdly loud voice, a twenty dollar bill, and a Nokia phone that was missing the * key and was really only useful to play Snake. I was one of the lucky few whose online ventures led to his first kiss, then friend, then girlfriend, then back to friend, now life coach… but everyone else doesn’t always end up so lucky.
The problem with the internet being available to our generation is that we like to hope for the good in people, which is probably why it takes so long for us to learn lessons. Here I am, typing up a brief history of the dangers of the internet with my online dating profile open in the separate tab thinking to myself Hm. I wonder why I haven’t met anyone of substance or sanity on here? Well, it’s because the internet is where crazies go to hibernate. And then it’s the ding of a Facebook chat, or the pong of a new message that wakes them up, and then we all go into full blown creeper mode. And it’s something we learned from an early age… well, at least those of us who survived. But that’s the scary thing, the chat rooms and the AIM and the time we spent searching the internet for the next weird thing to get ourselves into was just the beginning. Now we use it to keep tabs on our exes and people we don’t like and to look up pictures and videos of cats doing human things. (Oh, you haven’t seen Kittens Inspired by Kittens? Do it now.) I don’t think that the weird dial-up noise that used to come on as the internet loaded was a lack of technology… I think it was more of a warning sign that none of us never listened to, and after some reflection, it’s my very own mistakes that will keep future Kirkland children from accessing the internet until at least after puberty. Maybe longer.