Net-related ‘juvenoia,’ Part 2: So why are we afraid?

At least since 400 BC we’ve had what Dr. Finkelhor calls this “exaggerated fear about the influence of social change on youth,” but why are today’s fears so focused on the Internet? Finkelhor has the best explanation I’ve seen yet.

By Anne Collier

Why are so many adults so troubled by, if not fearful of, the Internet? I’ve been asking myself that for more than a decade, and I have my theories, but watching David Finkelhor’s talk “The Internet, Youth Deviance & the Problem of Juvenoia” was a breakthrough for me. See if it is for you….

Here’s how Dr. Finkelhor, who has studied child victimization online and offline for years as director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, puts the question, which he says has intrigued him too:

“Why has the idea that the Net increases risk had such a hold on people?” He goes on to say that, “almost always, the anxiety is strongly focused on children. I think that particular emphasis deserves more formal consideration.” So to fuel discussion around it, he coined the words “juvenoia” and “youngsternation” to cover the gambit of fear for and of youth. He defined juvenoia as “the exaggerated fear about the influence of social change on youth.” He says it’s “a kind of bias we’re all vulnerable to.” These days, yes – but also for a very long time.

‘Youngsternation’ in 400 B.C.

For example, he has a slide with an observation attributed to Aristophanes around 400 B.C. – “The children now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority … and love chatter in place of exercise” (Aristophanes foretold Facebook chat!) – and the medieval monk Peter the Hermit saying somewhere around the 12th or 13th century that “the young people of today think of nothing but themselves [reminding me of current claims of an epidemic of narcissism]…. They are impatient of all restraint.” Fast-forward a handful of centuries, and you have the US comic-book panic of the ’50s, complete with congressional hearings on comic books’ impact on America’s youth, and a number of other modern-day examples Finkelhor cited.

So if adults have always had this anxiety around the necessarily self-focused identity-exploring ways of adolescents as they get ready to leave and find new caves, continents, or careers, why is the Internet seen as a threat that – in today’s parental minds – may equal or exceed the draft, rock ‘n’ roll, the anti-war movement, and the sexual revolution? “Exposure” is the short answer. And not exposure to technology, but the exposure technology affords.

24/7 exposure to somebody else’s values

Finkelhor, who is a parent too and jokingly paused before taking questions to “monitor my son’s Facebook profile,” talks about “the biosocial parental investment in offspring” and what we see as threats to our offspring. What the Internet affords is the newest seeming threat to that investment: a combination of maximum diversity and 24/7 exposure to a diversity of values.

This goes way deeper than technophobia. Consider what ancient tribal society was like for parents, vs. today, Finkelhor suggests. Back then, the whole tribe shared the same values, so the inputs all around a child supported his or her parents’ inputs. Now, in today’s user-driven media environment, children are constantly exposed to a vast array of values literally from all directions. Not just from regulated, professionally produced media, but from potentially everybody, because anybody – including our children’s peers – can be a media producer now. So to an unprecedented degree…

“Virtually every parent from every station in life,” Finkelhor said, “sees him or herself as raising children in opposition to the common culture [which includes the Internet and which certainly doesn’t have much commonality]. Parents feel undermined by it – pitted, depending on their point of view, against consumerism, secularism, sexual licentiousness, government regulation violence, junk food, public schools, religious and racial bigotry…. Of course the Internet is one of the institutions that increased the diversity of that exposure, and this leads to a constant anxiety about [children’s exposure to] external threats” to “our family’s values.”

A parental siege mentality

Finkelhor names a number of other factors fueling our fears (at about 34 minutes into his talk): “urbanization and diversification,” “demographic change,” developmental stages (fear of losing primacy in one’s child’s life), nostalgia and perceived vs. real change, “political demagoguery” (kids don’t have political influence, so the potential for backlash is pretty small – e.g., calling kids sex offenders doesn’t get much pushback, he noted), and “social problem mobilization” (that last he describes as people or organizations seeking votes, funds, or media attention by exaggerating the danger – sound familiar?).

It occurred to me as I listened to him that what the professor’s saying is that we’ve developed a siege mentality. It seems to be based on a feeling that this generation of young people is somehow increasingly – and unprecedentedly – different from the older generation because (and this is me, not Finkelhor) of our children’s comparative comfort with a new media environment we so often hear is threatening to our children, and thus to our ability to raise them properly. Finkelhor sums it up with a phrase from Khalil Gibran: a feeling that “our children are not our children.”

So naturally there’s this anxiety among today’s parents about their children being exposed to new unknowns that may run counter to their values – and new environments where they have little influence. This is based on a belief, I believe fueled by misinformation and the predator panic, that the Internet is separate from our children’s real-world lives, where we can and do have influence. So that so-called unknown territory becomes the focus of our fears.

One thing that would help is questioning, thinking critically about, what Finkelhor referred to as the “exaggerated emphasis people put on a generational rift.” He said, “I don’t think the cyber revolution shows much evidence of being a big one. If you look back on generation rifts of the past – the feminist movement, flag burning, the antiwar movement – the current generational difference looks small. I think the case can be made that social technology is actually bridging generational differences to a degree.” He pointed to the “new ways for the generations to connect” afforded by new media. And this technological revolution “does not involve a fundamental change in values the way other generation rifts did.”

My own conclusion from following Dr. Finkelhor’s and other researchers’ work for nearly 14 years is that we’re closer to our children and more part of their so-called online lives than scary headlines would have us believe (I say “so-called online lives” because it’s just their lives we’re talking about). This is especially true if we’re learning about and engaged with the digital media they find so compelling. So it keeps getting clearer: The No. 1 online-safety and fear-amelioration tip has always been and will always be: Talk with your kids. In person is always best, but it can really help to do so on cellphones, in Facebook, on Xbox Live, and in virtual worlds too now. And if you feel hesitant for any reason, parents and educators, your kids would probably be happy to walk you through how to do that, which would be good for them too!

Readers, what do you think – does this make sense to you? Please feel free to comment below or via email to anne[at]netfamilynews.org.

Related links

* You may enjoy, as I did, this 90-sec. video interpretation of prehistoric juvenoia produced together by unnamed artists at MIT for the Sandbox Summit this month .
* “‘Juvenoia,’ Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated”

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