Gareth Watkins thinks that his son may need to spend some time offline.
When my son plays with his toys, which is rare, he won’t act out scenarios like I (and I presume you) did as a child. He reviews them, enumerating their light-up features and points of articulation to an imaginary camera. He’s re-enacting the toy review shows he sees on YouTube. His speech is run through with gamer slang, African-American Vernacular English and self-help bromides.
I’m a first-generation immigrant to the internet but my son is a native. I’m getting to the point that every parent worries about, where they realise that they are fundamentally different from their children, but at the same time I know enough about the world he’s growing up in that I can be worried.
When parents need information on parenting they can go to their own parents, which in my case is the ‘how to print a pdf?’ generation and therefore not much use, or to parenting experts. The latter may be of even less use. The information that exists pertaining to children and the internet falls into one of two categories, neither of which is much use to me: online safety, as in avoiding paedophiles and the like, or books like Wired Child, which promises to teach parents ‘why a bevy of social media friends won’t keep teens from feeling empty inside and turning to cutting for relief’. The writers of the latter may have PhDs but they see the internet’s toxicity as being the result of a few bad apples that can be avoided – if it ever becomes too toxic then you can turn off the computer and you are no longer surfing the web. They are talking about the World Wide Web, the interconnected html pages on which it is fun to talk to your friends or keep up with the latest news. I’m talking about Online, the malignant hyperobject that has interpolated itself with physical reality and is slowly making everything obey its inhuman logic like The Colour Out of Space.
My son has been watching YouTube for his entire life. Initially, Little Baby Bum, Peppa Pig compilations and, when he was going to bed, ‘lofi hip hop radio-beats to study/relax to’. As he’s aged, he’s become hyperfixated on Minecraft and cryptozoology, both of which have thriving YouTube communities. The site has come a long way from where it was in 2017, when James Bridle wrote the article ‘Something is wrong on the internet’, about the epidemic of garbage on the platform, either mass-produced, algorithmically-optimised pabulum like Kinder Surprise opening videos or Peppa Pig drinking bleach.
My worry now is that he won’t be disturbed by Online. The shows my son watches now are toy reviews made by American families in McMansions like Ryan’s World and Hobbykidstv (who have their own toy line and cartoon series, respectively), Minecraft streamers like Craftee and Aphmau (my son sleeps with an Aphmau-branded stuffed cat-doughnut hybrid) and snackable content ephemera from Bright Side (no product integrations, but with 44 million subscribers they don’t need any). In terms of their content these channels aren’t much worse than the cbbc shows I grew up on – Ryan’s World is a kid my son’s age having fun and Aphmau has an undisciplined improv group energy that’s kind of charming. But the problem with Online is never usually the content, or at least when content is problematic it’s because it exists in a form that rewards overreaction, mediocrity, unoriginality, cloying sentiment and bullying.
The largest and most consequential social media platforms – Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok – incentivise being annoying. When was the last time somebody became Twitter’s main character because they were particularly kind, insightful or creative? My worry about him vis-à-vis Online isn’t that he’ll join Atomwaffen or be groomed into a digital van full of imaginary puppies, but that he’ll enjoy the constant low-level irritation of being on platforms that reward saying that writers having to read is ableist or doxxing a stranger because you’ve decided that they have monkeypox.
I know that it’s unlikely that my son will have a materially better life than my own but I can at least help him avoid something I know to be emotionally deleterious and a waste of the little time he’ll have before the world gets so awful that it can no longer be ignored. I also know that going offline isn’t an option if I want my son to be able to get a job or communicate with most people. So we – me and every other parent who cares to think about what Online does to a person without the kind of tiresome ironic detachment that being online engenders – are adrift. We know what we’re doing is wrong but there’s no way to stop.
Reckoning with what a partly digital life can do to a child would mean first reckoning with the possibility that Online itself was a mistake, that as a species we’re not psychologically capable of living in a world where we are in constant contact with people with radically different views and experiences to our own. The people who think and write about how to raise a child are not interested in the failure of Online as a global village; the critics and sceptics of the digital world aren’t going to apply their ideas to parenting.
It could be argued that perhaps how to raise the next generation is of moderate importance in a society that will one day be inherited by that generation, and one could, in theory, advance the idea that Online is going to continue to be the most important part of that society. Therefore, it might just be possible that there should a lot of high-level thought and more practical, ‘ten tips for raising an Extremely Online child’-type advice for parents. But there isn’t. As with so much, we muddle through.
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