February 21, 2020

Social Media Won't Let Us Grow Up

“SEVERAL DECADES INTO the age of digital media, the ability to leave one’s childhood and adolescent years behind is now imperiled. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, it is evident that a majority of young people with access to mobile phones take and circulate selfies on a daily basis. There is also growing evidence that selfies are not simply a tween and teen obses­sion. Toddlers enjoy taking selfies, too, and whether intentionally or unintentionally, have even managed to put their images into circula­tion. What is the cost of this excessive documentation? More spe­cifically, what does it mean to come of age in an era when images of childhood and adolescence, and even the social networks formed during this fleeting period of life, are so easily preserved and may stubbornly persist with or without one’s intention or desire? Can one ever transcend one’s youth if it remains perpetually present?

The crisis we face concerning the persistence of childhood images was the least of concerns when digital technologies began to restruc­ture our everyday lives in the early 1990s. Media scholars, sociolo­gists, educational researchers, and alarmists of all political stripes were more likely to bemoan the loss of childhood than to worry about the prospect of childhood’s perpetual presence. A few educa­tors and educational researchers were earnestly exploring the poten­tial benefits of the internet and other emerging digital technologies, but the period was marked by widespread moral panic about new media technologies. As a result, much of the earliest research on young people and the internet sought either to support or to refute fears about what was about to unfold online.

Some of the early concerns about the internet’s impact on children and adolescents were legitimate. The internet did make pornography, including violent pornography, more available, and it enabled child predators to more easily gain access to young people. Law enforce­ment agencies and legislators continue to grapple with these serious problems. However, many early concerns about the internet were rooted in fear alone and were informed by longstanding assump­tions about youth and their ability to make rational decisions.”

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