Each week, Kate Williams ponders the world of social media. Today, she worries about teenage kicks.Twitter was very nearly brought to its bony little bird-knees last week, after a particularly virulent worm infected 10% of its users, crippling the microblogging site for several hours. Hapless victims needed only to hover their mouse over an infected tweet to launch, amongst others, Japanese ‘adult’ websites, as well as automatically retweeting the virus to all their followers.
After a bit of back and forth, it turned out that all this unpleasantness had been unleashed by Pearce Delphin, a [drumroll] seventeen-year-old schoolboy living with his parents in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The news launched a flurry of headlines, but let’s be frank: the only shocker in this teen-wreaks-web-havoc scenario is how vastly unsurprising it is.
Quite coincidentally, Harvard research director Carrie James this week unveiled her study of the ethical sensibilities of digital youth, at Mashable’s Social Good Summit – and people, the picture ain’t pretty.
Truth is, mostly they couldn’t give a fig about their impact on others, as they zip around the net. They rarely think of the consequences of their actions for the wider community; and they frame their online behaviour almost entirely through an individualist lens.
It’s also true that the teen at the centre of this most recent episode of digital vandalism didn’t sound especially chastened. On the contrary, he took advantage of the world’s attention to pitch for a job, betting – with some justification, given that many of his potential employers are themselves on the dewy side of thirty – that his audience would be more impressed with his hack skills than they would be appalled by his anti-social behaviour. So unflustered was he, that one wondered whether he’d been put through the parental mangle at all.
Now I am not yet so fortunate as to have teenagers myself. I was what is known by pitiless obstetricians everywhere as an ‘elderly primagravida’, and my young are still, well, young. At least, sufficiently so to pretend to love me in return for food.
But I was myself once adolescent, and I’d kind of assumed that the scene around the Delphin family table that night would be pretty similar to the grim dinner-table tete-a-tete I myself endured, after I’d used our Amstrad to rustle up a representation of a lady’s upper torso in zeros and ones.
The script for these encounters always went like this: “That machine is going in the boot of the Austin Princess and back to your Uncle Marv’s RIGHT NOW!” Followed by a sharp slap round the back of the knees, then the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger bit. Happy days, and – aside from the ‘70s-specific casual violence – I’d assumed still the template for tense parent-teenager exchanges everywhere.
But perhaps it is too much to expect today’s parents to read from the same riot act as mine did? We live, after all, in such a vastly-altered digital landscape that, due to a complete lack of knowing-what-we’re-talking-about, most parents today would respond to viral Twitter havoc with a Father Ted-like “Now don’t let me catch you doing that… thing you were doing again. I mean it.”
And there’s the crux of it. The Harvard research pointed to a few possible causes for the failure of teenagers to behave, for want of a better word, nicely on the web – and the most striking was the complete absence of an adult presence in their online lives.
In real life, almost all these kids had a grown-up that they felt comfortable consulting when faced with a difficult situation. But online – nada. While parents rightly protect their pre-teens by drumming the rules of internet safety into them, by the time their kids are adolescents and can themselves do damage, they seem simply to melt away.
Now, I’m sure that offline, most parents wouldn’t dream of just leaving teens to get on with it. But a combination of exhaustion, time poverty, and a dearth of basic social-media knowledge might easily make them shut their eyes, cram their fingers in their ears and hum loudly, hoping it will all just go away.
But people, it’s in the job description: our unenviable but unshirkable task is to direct our offspring’s terrifying ingenuity towards ‘positive outcomes’, and away from the making-others-miserable thing. It’s all the more vital because the web infinitely expands their capacity to do casual damage; just as its intrinsic anonymity increases the temptation to behave badly, by reducing the possibility of being caught.
We need to man up, arm ourselves with the knowledge we need – however mystifying it now seems – and get on with it. If we don’t nail this thing now, folks, we never will.
A bientôt, mes amis!
For more social media snippets, do follow @emodkate – or for general twittery, @KateVWilliams.