The Kids Aren't Alright

Article excerpt

Byline: Lee Siegel

The perils of parenting in the digital age.

When regulators at the Federal Trade Commission take steps within the coming weeks to strengthen the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, they could well be acting with Vicki Turner in mind.

Along with raising her three kids, ages 16, 13, and 7, and working a job with handicapped children and adults, the 43-year-old resident of Fullerton, Calif., also spends a big part of her life monitoring her oldest kids' online activities: steering them away from inappropriate content, preventing them from uploading photos of themselves onto commercial sites that invite them to do so, and occasionally making them unfriend a person on Facebook whom Turner considers undesirable. When told about Mark Zuckerberg's declared ambition to open Facebook to children under the age of 13, she sighs. "He just cares about what will profit him," she says.

In fact, Facebook, which hit a billion users last week, has sent a 20-page letter to the FTC imploring the agency to reconsider its planned revision of the 1998 act, which would prohibit the collection of information from children online, a lucrative practice that the social-networking behemoth clearly would not like to give up. Yet the FTC, though sharply criticized by an advertising industry unhappy with the proposed changes, says that current laws meant to shield children on the Internet have fallen way behind advancing technology. Entities, ranging from large corporations to obscure apps to roving data collectors, gather up children's personal information, photographs, and even their physical location. Antiquated laws requiring parental permission for such things are easily circumvented by cookies that document children's online movements the way birds devoured the crumbs of bread that Hansel and Gretel hoped would guide them back home.

For besieged parents, the FTC's proposed revisions cannot arrive a moment too soon. But welcome as those changes will be, they will have little effect on the Internet's social environment, which in many ways has made being a modern American parent more complex than ever before. "It used to be the proverbial question: 'It's 10 o'clock, do you know where your children are?'" says Jamie Wasserman, a child therapist with a practice in Manhattan. "Now your kid can be sitting a few feet away from you in the living room with a laptop, being damaged."

By "damage," Wasserman doesn't mean only the danger of meeting a predator on the Internet. She is also referring to what seems to be an almost infinite spectrum of online harm. A child could be bullied or harshly excluded from an instantly formed clique. At the same time, the pressure to be constantly posting, tweeting, and updating one's status threatens to obstruct the development of what used to be called, in unwired times, a child's "inner resources." With all the frenzied social networking on sites like Facebook, our kids are often forced to be social before they have become socialized.

Even for the most gregarious children, the Web's constant reminder of majority opinion makes them fearful of trying to say or do anything that doesn't please the crowd. Yet appealing to the Web's masses also offers them the temptation to say things they would never ordinarily have uttered in public--things that can come back to haunt them later in life.

I look at my own children, a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, and I wonder not just what the world has in store for them, but also how they will be able to find the world. When I was 5, people used a typewriter and talked on a landline. When I was 35, people were still conversing on old-fashioned phones. Between the time my son and my daughter were born, texting overtook both cellphones and emailing, desktop computers became obsolete, Twitter was born, the iPod passed through several generations, and both the Kindle and the iPad were invented. …