Complaint of the Week: Talking About Internet Safety in All The Wrong Ways

You know this internet thing, I am sure. One person stands, facing camera, holding a sign that reads something to the effect of, “I am/My mom is/my teacher is trying to teach me/my class/my kids about how quickly things spread online. Please repost so I can show them.

The earliest one I could find on a quick Bing (just kidding. Ask Jeeves forever!) search is this one. I feel like it has been around longer than that but perhaps I am wrong. Regardless, the point is that it has been around a few years.

As a one-off, it is…fine, I suppose. I disagree with the intent and method (which I will get in more as we go), but just if it happens just once, I will not rise in objection. The thing is, after a little lie-down, I’ve started to see it again, and often. Like more often than I saw it when that first one went up. So, now, I feel like it needs to be commented on.

First, and I can’t stress this one enough, there are ways to teach children about internet culture, viral events, etc without linking it to fearmongering. And make no mistake, that’s what this meme is about. It is about scaring kids. It is not about demonstrating the interconnectedness of our lives today. It is about wagging our fingers in the collective youth’s faces and saying, “You don’t do these things because if you do EVERYONE will know! And your life will be ruined!” It is a lousy thing to do to a kid and we do it too often in too many ways. We need to get better about teaching risk without implying every mistake means ruin. (We also need to get better about ensuring every mistake doesn’t end in ruin, but that’s a different topic for a different day.)

The internet is literally chockablock full of memes and viral videos. Why not assign homework in which a student finds one and researches its beginnings, how it spread, etc. That would teach the same lesson while making it clear that the internet is not just a scary place looking to destroy your innocence. It can also be fun, funny, inspirational, and so on.

Second, what you are doing is not an accurate representation of how the internet works. The lesson you are teaching is, in fact, not real. You are holding a sign encouraging older people to engage in a group shaming/scaring of youth and/or youth culture. Of course that’s going to spread all over the internet! The previous generation LOVES to tut-tut those behind them in line. You are just tapping that vein. You are teaching one way to cynically spread your viewpoint. Don’t fool yourself into believing you are noble.

Lastly (which is really just a synthesis of point 1 and 2) if you are teaching a lesson, you are teaching an easily undone one. In the same way D.A.R.E. classes of the late 80’s and early 90’s melted quickly in the light of life experience, so too will this “lesson.” D.A.R.E. taught kids of my generation that drinking, smoking were as dangerous as heroin. In fact, if anything, the emphasis was higher on the danger of drinking and tobacco. Then, kids would go home and see their parents have a cocktail, their uncle smoke a cigarette and see that these people were good, decent, and kind not monsters or broken shells. Thus, everything D.A.R.E. taught was called into question. If alcohol can be safely used—and by our parents besides—how  could we trust anything that damn class taught us?

Similarly, kids who are taught this will go home to see their parents sharing pictures on Facebook, tweeting, using Instagram and not going viral. They’ll see their parents make jokes that don’t end up on the evening news or the front page of Buzzfeed. And they’ll do what nearly all of us do when faced with two wildly disparate points: they’ll believe the reality of what is unfolding in their home in front of their eyes on a day-to-day basis.

And like that, the simplistic inaccurate scare tactic riddled warning you sought to convince them of? You have actually increased their resistance to it.