Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Net Worth: PBS' Kids Online

Reflections on PBS' Kids Online - 2008 / PBS Frontline E-Guide

My initial reaction to Kids Online is to submit that the title is culturally clunky. I have personally discontinued generalized use of the word kids because teenagers tend to resent it. Many of them see the term as belittling, and rightfully so. The dismissive sounding kids is often associated with babies and small goats. Appearing in Frontline’s title, the word’s connotations color the entire discussion about Internet use and young adults. 

Why can't they be like we were -- perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

-- "Kids!" from Bye Bye Birdie

Dislikes . . . likes?

Kids Online is from 2008.  The information presented in the hour-long documentary, while still pertinent in the broad scheme of things, is out of date. Repeated references to MySpace seem particularly anachronistic (though to be fair, no one in 2008 could have predicted the raw and ruthless machinations of Mark Zuckerberg and his infamous FaceBook friends which effectively forced out all competitors). I was disappointed in the PBS program’s failure to address, or even mention, the digital divide – the gap between individuals and communities that have, and do not have, access to new media and information technologies. 
As a generalized overview of the cyber revolution’s social impact, Kids Online has plenty to recommend it. I find the information on parent and teacher attitudes toward young people quite revealing. Additionally, the segments of Kids Online centered on the downside and dangers of social networking sites – peer pressure, cyberbulling, identity confusion, low self-esteem, addiction – offer very valuable insights.

The Netscape


The central thesis of Frontline’s documentary is clearly established: today’s teens, the first generation to grow up on the Internet, are immersed in a “virtual world that's largely hidden from their parents.” Early in the program we are told that, for adolescents, the Web is three things:  a place for self-expression, a place to complain about adults, and a place to connect with each other. A subtle but important point here is that young people perceive the Internet to be a place. One student featured in the program describes MySpace and FaceBook as fun because they are "a section of the Internet that’s your own."

Critical to understanding the impact of the Internet is recognizing the compelling core aspect of the medium as an instant fame generator. Though alluded to throughout PBS’ documentary, this facet of the Net is not explicitly acknowledged. I submit that beyond a view of the Internet as a tool for self-expression or self-publishing (ie. a diary, a sketch pad, a camera), young people perceive it to be a place to self publicate – that is, publically promote one’s identity, image and influence, directly (without regard to the notion of novelist, painter, song writer, filmmaker, and the like) – and thus they sense the social significance of the Web’s model of a world where anybody could, and everybody should, become famous overnight.

The Kids Online thesis suggesting that many of our youth are growing up in a virtual vacuum, “outside the reach of their parents,” is perfectly supportable. However, the associated supposition, that today’s teens are the first generation to come of age in cyberspace, is a less defensible argument.

Government offices, military agencies and large commercial institutions have utilized computer networking for generations. The system now known as The Internet was active as early as 1982. By the mid-1980s, doctors, business managers and other professional people were routinely making "mobile phone" calls. Tim Berners-Lee’s baby, dubbed WWW, was born in 1990, and it was in 1993 that America On-Line turned the geeky, science nerd cyberia into a popular hangout by hyping prepackaged homepages and chatrooms, secure email, and “safe surfing” zones for the nervous Net novice. So today’s teens – while the first generation to have never known a world without the Web – are not the first group of adolescents to grow up socializing on the Web.  They are, however, certainly the first generation socialized by it.

Without a Net

With more than 650 million users around the globe, FaceBook is the world's favorite online activity. Social networking can be enormously entertaining, but the Internet is potentially a grand platform for a teen to play out the awkwardness, insecurity and vulnerability of adolescence.

“The Internet is always a willing listener and it’s very seductive” offers Parry Aftab, founder and Executive Director at Aftab says young people’s desire to share their personal thoughts, feelings and frustrations, combined with “the immediacy and the power of the technology to allow them to act on impulse, that’s when everybody gets into trouble.”

Trouble in the electric schoolyard is cyberbullying, fighting, showing off, emotionally withdrawing, sharing inappropriate photos, sexting, gossiping and the like. Of course, these are the very same schoolyard troubles that existed BC (Before Computers), only now the neighborhood noise, nonsense and nastiness can go viral – being widely broadcast to the world and placed on the Web’s permanent record.
Most troubling about the brave new playground problems examined in Kids Online, is the fact that the grown-ups responsible for protecting, preparing, cautioning and counseling children are virtually absent from the picture. At several different points throughout the documentary, a pained parent or indignant instructor is indicting the out-of-control kids, even while confessing to being willfully ignorant of web culture and contentedly clueless about computers. During one interview, a veteran high school instructor of three decades betrays not a trace of shame nor sheepishness as she divulges that the teens she is assigned to teach are using technology to do things in her classroom that she has simply never (not in thirty years) learned to do – flatly announcing, “I just let them take over.”

This digital era dereliction of caretaker duty plays in the background of every scene, yet curiously, PBS’ program never focuses in on the issue. Since Frontline’s narrative docu-dramatizes the idea of holding youth responsible for doing adult things online – the lack of any discussion about parents playing hooky and educators eagerly dodging their responsibility to get schooled on technology is as conspicuous as the actual absence of adults in our children’s increasingly electric lives.  This year marks the 30th birthday of the Internet. While widespread cell phone, PC and Internet use may be a relatively recent thing, it is not so new that parents and paid professionals have an excuse to pretend it’s all too hi-tech to handle – or to act as if they just can’t comprehend computers, which Americans have commonly used in banking, business and telecommunications for decades – or to make believe that young people, kids, can just be dropped off on the side of the information super-highway and left alone to figure out the digital revolution for themselves.

Net Effect

The notion of teacher as presenter is only briefly touched upon in the documentary. It’s too bad this subject was not pursued a little further because the relationship between education and entertainment holds a special fascination for me. As I have come to see it, edutainment is an open acceptance of the teacher’s role as theatrical artist, or what I have, in that context, described as an “experience administrator” and an “aha moment manager.” The educator, just like the theatrical director, is tasked, not with the delivery of old ideas, but the generation of new ones. This requires the creation of an environment in which the information and ideas presented are brought to life within the hearts and minds of the class/audience. It seems obvious that an instructor would benefit from the basic training actors get in public speaking and deportment. Less obvious is the educator’s need for skill in the dramatic art of crafting a moment.

Net Gains

There is a basic question underpinning every scenario in PBS’ documentary: Why do good teens make bad choices? First, I would insist that teens are moving so quickly -- through such an intense physical, emotional and social developmental phase – that their crazy growing brains are bound to make some bad choices. Secondly, it is a well-known phenomenon that people will say and do things in cyberspace that they would not say or do in the real world. This aspect of life on the Web has been termed the "disinhibition effect." The Net is disinhibiting to users of all ages. The new millennium’s fresh spectacle of online inappropriate behavior, indecent activity, personality conflicts and poor choices has nothing to do with the present generation’s lack of character.

Net Worth

At the turn of the century, I did investigative Web experiments and Net installations exploring cyber-identity. I joined chat rooms and message boards. I built and maintained long-term blogs. For nearly a year, I went deep inside the gaming world of Travian. So I can confirm that the set of personal and social identity issues brought forth in PBS’ documentary are on target. We know that adolescence is a time of self-discovery and identity formation. Teens are driven to experiment with their personality – to try on different roles – so the Internet is a natural fit. This connection may begin to explain why Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal wealth is now estimated to be over 17 billion dollars.

In 2010, PBS produced a television special – similar to Kids Online, but more impressive and powerful. It is called Digital Nation. The FrontLine special was launched in conjunction with a dynamic website that hosts an ongoing discussion. Digital Nation contains newer data and a deeper, richer analysis of information age issues than Kids Online.



"Telephone Hour" from the musical, Bye Bye Birdie

Is it true about Kim?
I just knew it somehow
I must call her right up!
I can't talk to you now!

-- "Telephone Hour" from Bye Bye Birdie


Post a Comment