Given the alarmist hysteria that surrounds Internet predators — a TV news staple used to scare parents into watching — “Frontline” brings welcome restraint to “Growing Up Online.” An analysis of teens and technology, the hour highlights how today’s youth represents “the first generation to come of age immersed in a virtual world, outside the reach of their parents,” where the most troubling dangers might actually be what teens do to each other — the web becoming “a new weapon in the arsenal of adolescence,” migrating youthful cruelty into an intrusive new dimension.
Not everything about the Internet is negative, of course, and some of the self-reported tales of kids outwitting their parents and teachers (one boasts about pulling up benign web pages when he knows dad is remotely monitoring him) can be pretty amusing.
The worst impulses fostered by the web, however, do appear to be breeding bad habits among kids that are regularly displayed at the local multiplex — unable to holster their email access for even the duration of a movie, and to whom discretion and privacy “almost seem like a thing of the past,” as researcher Anne Collier puts it, given how publicly they expose their lives on social-networking sites online.
Far from online predation, the most disturbing tales here are not of adult predators but the damage teens inflict upon one another, including “cyber-bullying,” where even the one-time sanctuary of home can’t block out rumors and other malicious slights. The trend is explored via a suicide linked to such emotional abuse, seventh-grader Ryan Halligan, who killed himself in 2003 and whose parents are interviewed during the hour.
So while media outlets have self-servingly fixated on the most salacious threats they can imagine, the more pressing concern — beyond a generation with underdeveloped manners and attention spans — could be the escalation of schoolyard taunts into relentless cyber attacks upon the most vulnerable kids.
“Frontline” offers no simple solutions here, but producers Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio certainly frame the questions intelligently and provocatively. As for finding answers, the one temptation parents probably won’t have after watching this hour will be to encourage their children to surf for them online.