Going Bananas

Article excerpt

Earlier this year, the phones at Health Canada were jammed by anxious callers wanting the official word on whether bananas carried the virus that causes flesh-eating disease. Panicking parents, day-care providers, and even hospital staff members had been exposed to a modern variant of contaminated information - the virtual urban legend. Like many other unlikely tales, this banana slander was spread by "highest priority" e-mails sent from one gullible user to the next. Tired of repeating the same assurances, Health Canada finally issued an official statement declaring bananas to be the innocent victims of a smear campaign.

There is little doubt that we seem to park our skepticism at the door when dealing with computer-mediated information. If it can be downloaded, it must be true.

And if we're vulnerable to technologically distributed myths, what about our susceptibility to myths about technology itself? According to a pair of recent national studies called "Young Canadians in a Wired World," Canadian adults are woefully mistaken about what their children are doing online.1 It seems that everyone has bought the new urban (and suburban) legend that when students are asked, "Where do you want to go today?" they actually opt for MIT rather than the NBA.

The research was conducted in 2000 and 2001 by Environics Research for the Media Awareness Network. The Media Awareness Network was founded in 1993 as an information clearinghouse on media violence. Originally a modest spinoff of the National Film Board, like many other noncommercial (or even anticommercial) organizations, the network soon found its core government funding yanked as budgets were cut. As a result, the network has become increasingly dependent on corporate funding provided by cable companies, Internet providers, broadcasting corporations, and "disinterested" parties like AOL Canada. Predictably, it has shifted away from confronting media violence to pursuing the technological preoccupations of its sponsors, which include four departments of the federal government. Although it continues to produce high-quality resources for parents and teachers on issues such as protecting youngsters' privacy online, the network has steered clear of anything that could be construed as critical of government or corporate behavior or, for that matter, of anything that could undermine our boundless faith in "the promises of technology."

The two surveys that make up Young Canadians in a Wired World suggest that youths and their parents have very different ideas about life online. In the first study, 1,000 parents were asked about their children's internet experiences and habits. Eighty-eight percent reported that they were "somewhat or very familiar" with their child's use of the internet - a figure that might match the percentage of parents who think that they know all about their children's experimentation with alcohol, drugs, and sex. The second study asked 6,000 youths between the ages of 12 and 17 what they really do online, and how closely their parents are watching. As readers might suspect, parental hubris is alive and well in cyberspace.

Ninety-nine percent of youths report that they use the internet, which 79% can access from home. Forty-eight percent of 12to 17-year-olds go online every day, and 12% stay there more than three hours. Although 65% of parents think that homework dominates their children's internet use, youths report that they like to use the internet for, in order of preference, playing or downloading music (57%), sending e-mail (56%), and "surfing for fun" (50%). Forty-eight percent play games online, while only 38% turn to the internet for help with homework.

Although 41% of youths use instant messaging, fewer than 4% of their parents are aware of it. High school students are likely to have 30 people on their instant messaging list, 10 of whom they have never met. Kids are cyber-shoppers too, with 21% of high school boys claiming to have made online purchases. …