The gruesome video of Steve Stephens murdering Robert Godwin Sr. was viewed 1.6 million times within a couple of hours of its recording. How many of those views were by children and teenagers? The answer should worry us.
A 2014 study of children between the ages of 8 and 12 found that a quarter of them were using Facebook even though users must be 13 to join. A European study the same year found that half of kids between 8 and 16 said that they had ignored the age limit when they signed up.
When Consumer Reports found as early as 2011 that 7.5 million Facebook users were under age, the technology editor noted that “a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children’s use of the site.”
Indeed, when it comes to the dangers that their kids will experience, parents seem worried about all the wrong things. Mothers and fathers are troubled by the possibility that kids will get abducted by strangers while walking home from school (the chances of which are infinitesimal) or setting the house on fire if they are left home alone for 20 minutes (fairly easy to guard against) or falling off a seesaw at the playground (a normal part of childhood).
Watching someone commit a murder in real time, on the other hand, isn’t a normal part of childhood at all. Neither is watching videos of teens torturing a man, like the one broadcast on Facebook from Chicago a few months ago. Same goes for the videos of jihadis beheading “infidels.”
We can complain all we want about how Facebook shouldn’t permit such content to stay up. But, as a friend of mine who has worked in technology for the private sector and the government likes to remind me, “Information wants to be free.”
Parents still seem confused about this: If your kid is on the Internet, they’re on the whole Internet. Each year parents spend millions of dollars buying Internet filters for their homes, even hiring professionals to “child-proof” their computers. But they have little to show for it.
A study from the University of Oxford last month found “no link between household Internet filters and the likelihood of the teenagers in those households being better protected from unpleasant online material.” In other words, if you buy them a smartphone or a laptop or a tablet and give them enough time with it, they’ll figure out how to get past the parental controls.
Parents often don’t realize just how easily available that “unpleasant online material” is. Parents sit their kids down with a YouTube video of children playing with Barbies (yes, it’s one of the odd features of our age that kids like watching videos of other kids playing with toys or even opening presents) — and the next thing you know, YouTube is suggesting they might want to watch a video about people doing questionable things with Barbies.
Numerous parents have told me of their surprise in learning that their kids are communicating with adult strangers through their video games. Even if you’re OK with your kids playing first-person shooter games, you might not appreciate the conversation that grown men have with them while doing so.
It’s not just that our kids are more technically savvy than we are. It’s also that parents have different standards for what’s appropriate, so industry experts say it’s hard for anyone to offer a filter that will cater to the needs of different families.
In this sense, of course, technology doesn’t change anything. Parents have always had different standards for what their kids should be exposed to, and they have always had to act as a kind of filter through which their children experience the world.
In his speech Tuesday about the future of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg touted new technology that’ll allow people to experience “augmented reality.” New apps will enable people to go through their daily physical life and, when looking at objects through their phone screen, see “annotations” left by others for them — notes on refrigerators, pictures on walls, initials on tree bark.
In this new world, no part of our life will be untouched by the Internet. Zuckerberg and his friends in Silicon Valley are very excited by the prospect, but when it comes to introducing our kids to reality, sometimes less is more.
?Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.