Web of doom

Post-Littleton, paranoid media pundits seem blind to the line between the computer screen and reality -- just like the killers.

Published May 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Littleton shootings have set off the most intense and broad-brushed wave of anti-Internet paranoia since the Great Net Porn Scare of 1995. Now, two weeks after the tragedy, we've cycled beyond the initial "Blame it on the Net" phase (which my colleague James Poniewozik ably chronicled) into a full-tilt "Something must be done!" reaction -- complete with a White House summit on media violence and a desperate self-policing effort from an online industry hoping to stave off the next round of ill-conceived legislation.

Time magazine, which led the way in demonizing the Net four years ago, is once more in the forefront. Its cover this week reads: "Growing Up Online: Today's kids dwell in a world of computers and video games. Here's how parents can help them make the right choices." The cover bathes a bespectacled pre-teen boy in a cool monitor glow.

In a different month, the exact same illustration might have accompanied an ebullient article about digital prodigies, with a headline like "Will your child be the next Bill Gates?" But post-Littleton, the message is clear: The Net is an unhealthy influence. Protect your offspring from the deadly rays!

Daniel Okrent's thoughtful but muddled cover story alternates a savvy awareness of the Net's unique traits with a hand-wringing frustration about how little parents can do about them: "Even if our kids aren't playing blood-soaked computer games or plotting violence in the dark crannies of an online chat room, they are plunging into a whole world of influences and values and enticements that is, most of the time, hidden from our view." He continues, "The wonder and horror of the Web is not that it takes you out into the world; on the contrary, it brings the world -- in all its glorious, anarchic, beautiful, hateful variety -- into your home."

Similarly, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman -- echoing a message in his new book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" -- argues that the Net represents a dangerous intrusion into the sacred American living room. His Tuesday column describes a conversation with a concerned parent in Baltimore: "The murders in Littleton, though, and particularly the fact that one of the presumed gunmen had his own blood-chilling Web site, had got him thinking afresh about his own kids, he said. He suddenly realized that, with the Internet, it didn't matter anymore what neighborhood he lived in, and whether he locked the doors or not -- because trouble was now a fingertip away. With 'one mouse click,' his kids could be in a porn shop, a pedophile's living room, a casino, a gun shop, a neo-Nazi hall, and Lord only knows where else."

With such messages pouring into the public psyche, it was inevitable that the public would respond by saying, "Do something!" And so a CNN poll reports that 65 percent of American adults believe that the federal government should "do more to regulate violence on the Internet." I'm still puzzling over that one: Are we going to outlaw flaming? Ban violent games? What is "violence on the Internet," anyway -- has an e-mail ever slugged anyone?

What's happening here, I think, is not just a transitory bout of finger-pointing. It's a sign of a more dangerous societal nervous breakdown on the subject of the Internet -- a volatile mixture of ignorance, fear and repressiveness that displays a kind of incipient collective insanity.

I don't use that word lightly. Consider what Okrent and Friedman are telling us: The Net brings the world into your living room. Of course, TV has been charged with that for decades; but while we've always heard the complaint that the tube is a warping influence, no one has ever insisted that "E.R." and "Homicide" are dangerous because they actually turn our living rooms into hospital wards and police stations.

Somehow, though, the Internet is perceived to have magical powers of metamorphosis and teleportation. "One mouse click," Friedman suggests, actually puts kids "in" dangerous places. Friedman and other media alarmists have bought into the most overwrought virtual-reality hype: Confusing metaphor and reality, they seem to believe that, say, when you shop at Amazon.com you are physically in a bookstore, rather than sitting in your home looking at a screen -- and when a kid stumbles on a porn site's front door, it's the literal equivalent of stepping inside a real-world triple-X shop.

One mark of sanity is an abiding awareness of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, fiction and fact, the world of the imagination and the world of our bodies, the representations of media and the actualities of life. A healthy psyche understands these differences and allows for exploration of fantasy within some protective limits; an unhealthy one either fearfully squelches the imagination or obsessively indulges it, losing track of its boundaries.

Ironically, this is precisely the disorder that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are being diagnosed with: Their Doom and Quake habit, it's argued, anesthetized them to violence so that they actually thought they were inside a game as they gunned down their classmates. "They were playing out their game in God mode," says "an Internet investigator associated with the Wiesenthal Center" in another Time article.

If that's true, and it might be, it's a sad sign of how awfully disturbed they were -- millions of other kids play first-person shooter games and grow up to lead normal lives. But a psyche that has lost the ability to separate play from life is one that can be set off by almost anything: a video game, a movie, a letter, a scolding from a parent, a neighbor's dog. Unless we want to shut down the movie houses and shoot all the dogs, there's little we can do to achieve total security from the potential psychopaths in our midst. When you start to hear voices, the voices can come from anywhere. (Of course, if we want to get serious about preventing future tragedies, we might think about how we stigmatize mental illness and starve the budgets for its treatment. But it's easier and more satisfying to lobby for repressive laws and Net censorship schemes.)

Right now, it seems like our whole society is beginning to hear voices. Traumatized by the Littleton nightmare, we rush to grant the Internet the ultimate bogeyman power -- the ability to turn words and images on a screen into actual physical assaults. It's as if we think that, if only Harris and Klebold hadn't been online, they'd never have found the bomb recipes that sit on a thousand library shelves, or rounded up friends to buy guns for them.

At the same time that the pundits charge that the Net makes too much of the world too available to our kids, they also complain that the things kids do online are secret, off-limits, barred to adults -- in Okrent's words, they're "hidden from view." What is an open book to our kids somehow becomes inaccessible to those who've crossed the threshold to adulthood.

Nothing could be more absurd: If a page is on the Web, it isn't "hidden" from anyone, and e-mail is a lot easier for parents to monitor should they wish to than schoolyard conversations. In fact, it seems that the major role Eric Harris's anger-ridden, threat-filled Web site played in the tragedy was to warn at least one attentive neighboring family that the boy was going to crack up (the authorities failed to follow up on the complaint).

The real trouble here is not that the Net is barred to adults but that lots of adults -- through technical ignorance, fear, lack of time or indifference to their children's inner lives -- haven't educated themselves about the new medium. "Parents fear that children are one click ahead," a Monday New York Times front-page headline shouted. Too many adults, it seems, have simply written off the Internet as some sort of dragon-ridden unknown territory that's off-limits to them.

If a 10-year-old can surf the Web, and a 15-year-old can build a Web site, surely their parents can -- indeed, must -- keep up. If the post-Littleton scare induces more adults to spend more time exploring the Net with their kids -- rather than viewing the computer as a TV-like box that serves as a surrogate day-care provider -- that can only be good.

To me, the scariest news to emerge from the current wave of Internet paranoia is that large numbers of American kids and teenagers are using the Net to express their enthusiasms and vent their frustrations -- and large numbers of American adults are simply ignoring them. If your child has a Web site, read it! If it's creative and imaginative, be proud. If it describes a world of loneliness or anger or hate, pay attention. Loneliness and anger and hate were around long before the Internet was invented. The Web didn't cause your kid's problems, so don't blame it -- thank it for giving you the chance to listen.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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