You’ve probably all seen pictures or posts floating around on Twitter and Facebook that feature a picture of an adult asking the internet to share, comment, or like the photo to illustrate how quickly things spread on the internet. Usually this is supposed to be some sort of lesson for their class or their children as part of internet safety. These posts have long rubbed me the wrong way and I only recently came to the realization of why.
The first thing that strikes me about these posts is that they’re often created by people who are not incredibly internet or social media savvy to illustrate a point about the dynamics of social media to young people who have spent their entire lives on social media. While young people often make stupid decisions and often require education about things, it’s an odd assumption for an adult to assume that young people don’t understand the nature of “viral content” when young people were really the inventors of viral content. Young people spend much of their lives striving to make their content spread more quickly to more people, so if you think they don’t understand how to get the internet to work, you’re deeply underestimating their abilities.
But this odd dynamic that young people can’t live in a technological world safely isn’t what makes me angry about these posts. What makes me angry about these posts is that they are not in any way an actual reflection of how posts spread on the internet. The only reason they go anywhere is because there are lots of adults out there who like to feel holier-than-thou about internet safety. If a teacher picked a random post on their Facebook page to track that was simply a picture of their dog, or a status update, would it spread in the same way? I seriously doubt it.
Most of the internet does not run on contrived social experiments. It’s an organic world in which interesting, fun, and sometimes ridiculous content rises to the top and the rest falls away. Because of the sheer size of the internet, the vast majority of content that any individual will post will not get seen by very many eyes. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time TRYING to get my content in front of eyes and it is not easy. Banking on the fact that lots of people love to make teens feel stupid is a cheap trick and doesn’t accurately reflect what a realistic piece of content might look like. It’s also incredibly different from the type of content young people are likely to be posting, which makes your oh so cool experiment fairly irrelevant.
But beyond the fact that your way of illustrating your superior intelligence to young people isn’t really very good, I would also invite adults to consider that teens have reached a point in their lives where they begin to weigh cost and benefit for themselves, and they don’t always come to the same conclusions as the adults in their lives. They may have all the same information as you and still choose to act differently. They have every right to do so. As a whole, I have found that young people have a different sense of privacy, freedom, and safety than older adults do. Many young people are less bothered by the concept of massive data collection because they don’t see it as an invasion of privacy but rather as a way to use data while allowing individuals to become lost in the size of the data.
Many young people also have a different sense of what kinds of information are shameful or inappropriate for public consumption. As a personal example, my mother and I have often had disagreements over internet safety and how much I share online. I am well aware that what I post on this blog may follow me to a job or may break up some friendships. I am well aware that I have been extremely open about my mental health and that there is stigma against those with mental illness. However I have personally decided that if a work place or friend will not accept me with my mental illness, I don’t want them. I also find that I’m not afraid of Google or Amazon using my information to tailor ads to me because no actual human being is sitting and looking at personal information about me, and likely never will. No one is gaining insight into me, there is simply an algorithm run without any person watching it or learning anything about me.
Older folks tend to have more fear about these things. But think about the fact that some people don’t feel comfortable giving out any information online whatsoever. They will never buy online, never give out their address, never give out anything. Most of us think they’ve gone overboard. That is how older adults often look to us younger folks. We have come to our own conclusions about privacy and safety, and it’s ok that they’re different from yours. That doesn’t mean you have to educate us or teach us. We have the same information as you.
None of this is to say that teens don’t make stupid decisions on the internet or that people can’t post incredibly inappropriate and harmful things that might follow them for a long time. It’s absolutely appropriate to educate about internet safety. What isn’t appropriate is this “gotcha” mentality that seems to imply young people are too stupid to figure out how the internet works or that it might ever have consequences. Teaching the values of kindness, compassion, appropriateness, and social skills will work just as well for helping kids navigate the internet as it does to help them navigate every other public space. We have studies and actual real research about the internet, how fast things spread, what tends to spread, and so on. Research instead of being lazy and conducting a poorly thought out experiment.