Of the dozens of kids I interviewed over several months and in various neighborhoods around New York every one of them said he or she had seen “inappropriate material” online, sometimes accidentally through pop-ups or Google searches, sometimes not. There’s no doubt that some kids, and even some schools, remain far more sheltered than others. But the average age of first exposure to Internet pornography is widely cited as 11. “It’s pretty much intensely available,” one 13-year-old told me, before adding that he’s actually not as into online porn now as he used to be. And the very mention of filters tends to elicit laughs. Teenagers and tweens know that programs like Net Nanny don’t stand a chance against their generation’s superior Internet knowledge and access to proxies like Hidemyass.com, which acts as a gateway between a filtered computer and the big bad web and, crucially, keeps searches anonymous.
“You don’t have an account or anything, so it doesn’t give any of your information,” says 12-year-old Alexa of a site called Omegle, which pairs users randomly, and anonymously, in video or text chats. When I meet her and her friend Kelsey around the block from an Upper West Side middle school, they have braces and school bags and the fawnlike quality of girls on the cusp of adolescence. They also know that sites like Omegle are not exactly just for making new friends.
“It was really disgusting,” says Kelsey of the time last year when they first went on the site. “Like, people did inappropriate stuff. They’d show their private parts. They won’t talk; they just type. They’re like, ‘Do you like that, you like that, you want more, you want more?’ And we’re like, ‘No. That’s disgusting.’ ”
“We were together when we first saw it,” Alexa explains. “Our friends were just like, ‘Oh, here, look at this.’ ”
“The boys talk about it a lot.” Kelsey says, shrugging. “We just laughed and disconnected.”
“You can press DISCONNECT whenever you want.”
“It’s like if I [spoke to] ten of them, like, two people would probably be normal. Or one. Or they’d be normal at the beginning and then do that perverted stuff.”
“They can’t find you,” Alexa points out. “You don’t really tell them your name a lot. People know not to tell them where they are and stuff.”
“With certain guys, they’ll see something on the Internet, and then they’ll want their girlfriend to do it.”
“You make up a name or something, like Madison. The thing is, you can always lie. Everybody does.”
The girls know to be wary of strangers on the Internet—but they’re also wary of how the web is affecting the boys they might actually want to date.
“Guys wouldn’t really know about that much stuff if it weren’t for the Internet,” Kelsey says. “It freaks them out.”
“Yeah,” Alexa agrees. “It makes them kind of, like, inappropriate.”
“It can make them perverts at a younger age.”
“Like, sometimes you’re not ready for stuff like that.”
Kelsey tips her head to one side pensively. “I think it mostly happens to guys ’cause they’re just like, ‘Oh, look, that’s really cool.’ You know how when we were little girls, mostly we wore dresses and stuff, and we didn’t want to jump in the mud or anything or splash in puddles that can get us dirty?” The guys, on the other hand, splashed eagerly away. “It’s, like, the same. It’s disgusting to look at that dirty stuff, but the boys are just like, ‘Whatever, it’s life.’ ”
“Once they get older, they’ll grow out of it,” Alexa reasons.
“Yeah, I think it’s just a stage in middle school,” says Kelsey, “but I think they’ll get less perverted when they get to high school and stuff.”
“Basically, with certain guys, they’ll see something on the Internet and then they’ll want their girlfriend to do it,” Cristal says when I ask her how the Internet influences dating among her friends—a sentiment that is largely shared by the girls in the Brooklyn pizzeria.
“Okay, there was this one guy who had, like, a porno addiction,” Tricey tells me. “He likes to watch pornos and everything. And so I’m going out with him, and he sees that I have, well …” She motions to her chest, which is perky and ample. “So he’s like, ‘Oh, you want to dress up like that, too?’ And I see the picture, I’m like—” A look of shock crosses her face, as she goes momentarily speechless. “She had, you know how they have those fake-boob things? And then she had, like, this hot-pink bikini and these really tiny thong underwear. He’s like, ‘Oh, you want to dress like that?’ I just looked at him, for ten seconds, and then I just walked away.”