In September, a clip of Louis C.K. on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show went viral. The comedian launched into a rant about smartphones and how information technology is toxic, especially for children. “They don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy,” C.K. said. “You know, kids are mean. And it’s because they’re trying it out.” In his view, a kid sending a cruel text or email doesn’t get to see the hurt register on someone’s face and so doesn’t learn from that experience.
Berkeley professor Coye Cheshire, who studies computer-mediated communication at the School of Information, said C.K.’s concerns have merit. “We really do not know as much about the longer-term effects of essentially training ourselves, especially kids at an early age, to get used to saying whatever we want, from wherever we want, to whomever we want,” he wrote in an email. “I think it is reasonable to be concerned about unintentionally training ourselves to communicate in ways that do not punish disrespect.”
If the news is any indication, we have plenty to be concerned about. Story after story has emerged of children driven to suicide by online tormentors. Still, it’s probably too early to know whether our modes of communication are changing us for good or ill. In the meantime, reflection on life before hyper-connectivity may shed some much-needed light on our current situation.
Professor Paula Fass, a Berkeley historian of childhood, says that in the last century, new media has reliably provoked hysteria among parents. She points to the outcry over movies in the 1920s and television in the 1960s. Adults were horrified that young people would be desensitized by the “boob tube.” Today, our panic has as much to do with how rapidly children have adjusted to changes as it does with the changes themselves. “I do think that children are awfully smart and they adapt themselves to a whole variety of things,” she said. “This has been an adaptation that they have taken up very well, and much faster and much more shrewdly than us.”
School of Information Ph.D. danah boyd ’08 (who spells her name all in lower case, à la e.e. cummings) now works for Microsoft Research. She studies youth online culture and has an upcoming book entitled It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In her view, kids are grappling with the same issues online that they’ve been dealing with offline for decades. Critics of information technology point to bullying and anonymity as ills, but they are nothing new. In fact, she says, studies show that bullying has not increased in the past 30 years. Furthermore, children say it happens more often at school than on the social network, and with greater emotional stress. And while anonymity can be used to shield kids from the consequences of their cruelty, boyd insists it also has enormous value, allowing kids to safely explore high-stakes areas like politics or sexual identity.
Many of our fears spring from a desire to help children, boyd acknowledges. “But helping them is about the long term and not just the short term,” she says. To her, that means teaching kids to be critical thinkers and then letting them explore the Web for themselves. What’s at stake may not be technology but the cultural logic we help children bring to it. She finds it sad that “we have stopped paying attention to young people and pay so much attention to the technology they use. We need to take a step back.”