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Why Your Kids Know More About the Future Than You Do

Is the Internet changing kids in mysterious, potentially dangerous ways? Certainly. And soon enough, it will change you, too.

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It could be that chat kills people. The unfettered expression of fantasy -- and worse, the automatic search function that links your fantasy to like-minded ones -- so exacerbates a wacko predisposition (and what teenager doesn't have a wacko predisposition?) that cyberchat, rather than guns, is the real cause of teen mayhem, Charlton Heston and friends might argue.

Of course, teen mayhem and teen media have always had a close connection, at least in the minds of news magazines, morality self-promoters, and parents at wit's end.

The Columbine killings -- with chat rooms, Websites, multiplayer games, and the general weirdness and unknownness of the Internet taking the rap -- represent something of a new-media rite of passage. Such finger-pointing is always about selecting a target that you can't miss. So what's really being said is that new media is big media, that it's everywhere, and that, by virtue of its sudden, shocking ubiquity, along with its disconcerting newness, there's a pretty good chance it has something to do with what's going wrong.

While this is not an intelligent analysis, that doesn't make it any less true. As Internet media becomes pervasive media -- pervasive like rock and roll -- it will no doubt precipitate a shift in teen personality, behavior, aspirations (not to mention parental relationships). In other words, here we go again.

I was the parent brought in to talk about the Internet on Media Day at my daughter's high school last week. I tried to suggest beforehand that these kids probably didn't need a parent to talk about the Internet. Newspapers, sure -- get an editor. Television -- get a producer. But the Internet, unless you wanted to get an investment banker to talk about IPOs, seems, at least for teenagers, self-evident. The school, though, was determined to have an expert (me).

Well, I tried to broach the subject of the power of this new medium with the story of a media mom (quite a megamedia mom, at that) who, over lunch with me, was really vociferous about the evil of the Internet: It was like a drug; it entrapped kids; obviously there was a parental responsibility to draw the line somewhere against threats to our children's innocence. When pressed, however, for an explanation about the extreme nature of her views, this heretofore-liberal media executive admitted she was feeling particularly uncharitable because the Secret Service had visited her home in Brooklyn after her teenage son threatened the president on AOL.

There was a sudden wave of tittering from my daughter's classmates and furtive looks. The Secret Service, it seems, had just shown up at this school. Someone here, from the computer room, had threatened the president, too.

What are we to make of this? Is it meaningful or meaningless? Does the Secret Service run a search bot on key words related to presidential death threats? Should every high school be running its own malcontent search engine? Can technology distinguish lethal threats from idle ones? Count on it: Someone's already speccing the code and writing the business plan.


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