Saturday, June 25, 2011

Actually, It's An Old Story About Parenting

I suggested recently that perhaps David Brooks was better served by sharing the thoughts of others - a paper or book he's read - penning columns that are really 800 word book reports, due to his propensity to go terribly wrong when sharing a personal analysis. Brooks took enough issue with my suggestion to write a column that demonstrates that he can go terribly wrong, even when penning one of his book reports, or in this case his reaction to a magazine article about a thirteen-year-old whose age-inappropriate online life led to a lot of problems.
People talk about the online “community,” but it’s more accurate to see the response as a guerrilla war. Ostrenga made an aggressive bid for attention. Other people made a bid for attention by savaging her. Most of the viciousness hurled her way can’t be quoted here, but the article in Rolling Stone accurately described the mob-like behavior: death threats, savage sexual appraisals. “I know where you live, and I’m gonna kill” your cat, one person flamed. “Kiki go die you ugly [expletive],” another wrote.
Call it a Scarlet Letter phenomenon, something that could not possibly have occurred in any other era... except, that is, for every other era. There's nothing new in the story except for the role of the Internet, and even in that respect you can find similar stories. Parents have been warned about predators on the Internet pretty much as long as it has existed.

What we really seem to be looking at, though, is a story about parents who did not provide proper supervision for their child, who did not take appropriate corrective action when it was obvious that serious problems were brewing, and who... well, judge for yourself:
She [at age 13] was contacted by an 18-year-old man named Danny Cespedes, who charmed Kiki and her parents and became intertwined with their household. Unbeknownst to them, Danny had tried to seduce a string of young girls, some as young as 12. After her mother discovered that he had forced himself on Kiki one night, the Ostrengas pressed charges. As he was being arrested, he jumped off the second floor of a parking garage and ended up in a coma. He died two months later.
How many parents would allow themselves to be "charmed" by a grown man who was interested in dating their thirteen or fourteen-year-old daughter? One who supposedly gained access to their home the first time he molested their daughter by claiming to be too drunk (or possibly stoned) to go home... what a charmer. Does Brooks sincerely believe that alarm bells should only start going off if they know he has a prior history of predatory behavior? Even if we assume extraordinary naivete, how was it that the man was even in a position to force himself on the child "one night"? I recognize that the PSA's, "It's ten o'clock, do you know where your child is," haven't run since Brooks and I were about the same age as the girl in the story, but again this seems to be "the same old story". It appears that the parents did know where their daughter was, which raises the question of why they allowed a context in which a grown man would have access to her bedroom at night, even if they found him to be charming.

From the original article,
Cathy and Scott suggested to Kiki that it was time to leave MySpace, but Kiki protested: "If you take me off the Internet, the bullies will win."
To which I think an appropriate parental response would be, "Nice try, young lady."
Kiki didn't tell them the other reason she didn't want to leave MySpace. She had finally made a connection that she hoped would last....
As you've guessed, the connection is the aforementioned adult "boyfriend".

Back to Brooks:
Next, she was victimized by the owner of a for-profit, teen-exploitation site called Stickydrama. The site’s owner both organized mass hate sessions against Kiki and invited her to live with him and become one of the site’s exhibitionist playthings. “If I can’t have you, I will destroy you,” he wrote in a Twitter message, according to Rolling Stone.
And her parents were where?
Her parents couldn’t seem to take the reins, even after they saw her online presence was not just a way of being creative.
Is that "couldn't seem to" or "didn't try to"?
She is an extreme case of an enormous uncontrolled experiment that is playing out across the world. Young people’s brains are developing while they are immersed in fast, multitasking technology. No one quite knows what effect this is having.
Even that isn't a new story - just an update. People said pretty much the same thing about radio and television.
The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things that young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12. No one quite knows the effect of that either.
Again, this is supposed to be a new phenomenon? I guess Brooks has never heard, for example, of the 70's?
Most important, some young people seem to be growing up without learning the distinction between respectability and attention. I doubt adults can really shelter young people from the things they will find online, but adults can provide the norms and values that will help them put that world in perspective, so it seems like trashy or amusing make-believe and not anything any decent person would want to be part of themselves.
That's the most important lesson from this supposedly new phenomenon - that people, and quite notably young people, can't always differentiate between respectability and attention? And that grown-ups can help kids develop good values?

So it's the age-old story that parenting is hard, setting appropriate boundaries for your kids is hard, adolescents will push their limits, and if appropriate boundaries are not enforced bad things can happen.

Brooks offers the softest of conclusions to his editorial, that the story "is not only about what can happen online, but what doesn’t happen off of it". But in that sense, he's offering the story as a parable. Although Brooks minimizes the role of parenting and speaks of adults, generally, either way this is an extreme case. No meaningful lesson can be drawn from the specifics - if another teen tried to imitate the young girl in Brooks' story, even in the most slavish of fashions, odds are she would remain obscure. Perhaps his conclusion is, in a sense, like the "do you know where your children are" PSA's - both oversimplifying what it means to be a good parent and implying dire consequences if you don't meet a relatively arbitrary test. But no matter how I look at it, Brooks seems to be attempting to present as somehow new an age-old story about which he has no particular insight.

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