If you’re on the older end of the Millennial spectrum, you may remember your first forays into the early Internet as a teenager or pre-teen. Dial-up modems, AOL and AIM chat, grainy animated gifs, and weirdly amateurish sites, for even respected entities like CNN and NASA characterized the Internet of the 90s. The playground of our youth. We were warned, by parents, teachers, and anyone who thought we would listen, not to use our real names anywhere. We were told to make up identities, even to lie about where we lived. We were told never to upload photographs of ourselves for any reason – although that may have been more of a bandwidth concern for some parents than a security one.
Not all of us listened to that advice, of course, but in 2001 more than half of teenagers reported having multiple email addresses or screen names. A quarter of teenagers reported pretending to be someone else in their online interactions. These rates matched closely the number of teenagers who had their own websites, suggesting the possibility that those more deeply involved in the Internet may have been more cautious with their own data.
Adults were desperately afraid of predators online luring their children into a false sense of security, preying on our naivete and teenage rebellion to kidnap us or worse. Those fears may have been exaggerated, but the security precautions we were given were realistic and appropriate to the real threat: online harassment and “cyberbullying.” By keeping a layer of lies and misdirection between ourselves and the people we knew online, we were able to explore that new frontier with a modicum of safety, and the identities we tried on helped us learn who we really wanted to be during those crucial developmental years of experimentation.
This was the world before Facebook. The Internet before selfies, before social media, before smartphones.
Now, almost all teenagers are online daily. Teenagers report using Facebook more than any other social media site, and nearly all of them are using their real names. Their online friends overwhelmingly include people in their offline life, and while the majority do not leave their Facebook profiles completely open to the public, their posts are available to friends (and often friends of friends). Compared to the first online generation, this is a huge increase in participation and a major shift in how that participation is happening. Teens are sharing more data, more often, and more of it is real.
There are real positives to this change. Teen victims of abuse are able to find online support and legal advice. LGBT youth and teens struggling with mental health problems can find communities that understand the reality of their situation in ways that local adults (yes, sometimes even parents) may not be able to. The Internet is where teenagers are blossoming, finding their political identities, engaging with their world. It’s where they post their creative works and refine the skills that may become careers. It’s also where massive, spontaneous campaigns of harassment pop up overnight and drive at-risk youth to depression and sometimes suicide.
When we see teenagers struggling with online bullying, it’s common for people in our generation to joke about turning off the computer and moving on. We understand how cruel the Internet can be, but it is a place we think we can walk away from. For those who have grown up in the age of social media, though, things aren’t as easy.
How to deal with cyberbullying pic.twitter.com/ExfaR4FVI0
— Life Pro Tips (@perform) April 5, 2014
Not actually helping, Twitter…
We experienced trolling. We saw drama on LiveJournal and message boards, we got death threats in our email and our guestbooks. Those things were scary and real and could do real hurt, and if the threats were specific and included terrifying real personal data, we took them seriously. But the trolling we suffered was for the most part directed at our fake selves, our online personas. As long as they didn’t get at our real names, our real information, we were insulated and safe. If a true shitstorm erupted, we could shed those identities like snakeskin and create new ones at the drop of a hat. We could escape the bullies like a kid who slithers out of his jacket and makes a run for it.
But Corporate Internet has decided that aliases and anonymity is bad for business. User data connected to a real person is more valuable to the advertisers they sell it to. Real name policies force people trying to participate on the major platforms of the Internet to expose themselves right from the start. While Google+ eventually relented on their real names policy, they still steadfastly push a persistent identity mentality, both to improve the quality of their data and to “hold users accountable.” Facebook is still forcing users to change their user name to the legal name on a valid form of identification for any account that is reported as having a fake name.
These policies have been criticized elsewhere as being dangerous for victims of domestic violence, transgender people, and other marginalized groups. But perhaps the most impacted group are children growing up online today. If they want to be on major platforms, they must use their real names. The protection we relied on to survive the wild west of the early Internet is gone for them.
We can’t pretend that children are going to grow up offline and only show up on the Internet when they’re mature enough to handle it, either. School districts increasingly require students to complete work online, and phones with Internet access are now the default. The devices teenagers need to begin their stumbling journey to adulthood put them online, whether we monitor, restrict access, or spy on them. And parents can be guilty of putting their children out there, too. Facebook is used as a tool for families to stay connected across long distances, and that inevitably includes baby pictures and stories. Some children even have social media accounts set up in their own, real name by parents who expose that data for the world to see going back to the delivery room.
Every kid makes mistakes. These kids will make many of those mistakes online, for the whole world to see in perpetuity. The question isn’t how to stop that from happening, the question is how to mitigate the negative consequences going forward.
Anonymity, through thoughtful parental engagement online and giving children and adults the right to participate without exposing themselves, is one way to reduce harm.
Death threats and harassment were terrifying when they were vague and couldn’t be backed up by anything, but now they are being made by people who know who you are, who know your face, who may go to your school. You can’t tell kids to “walk away” from that. You can’t tell them “don’t feed the trolls” when the trolls are their peers in real life, too.
Cyberbullying isn’t just a nuisance, it’s actively dangerous to teenager’s health. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health “victims of cyberbullying were almost 2 times as likely to attempt suicide than those who were not.” In the years since social media has become a major part of teenage internet use, successful female suicide rates have risen, and suicide has become the number two killer of teenagers. While the overall teen suicide rate has stayed roughly level since the rise of social media, it’s important to note that suicide rates had been dropping prior to this levelling off period.
Participating online can be a powerful tool for good or evil when it comes to teenagers and mental health. Anonymity can be abused by bullies and trolls to harass their victims, but it can also be a way to escape the fury of the net and the inevitable mistakes of youth. By taking away the option for teenagers to join the most popular online communities without exposing their real details, Corporate Internet thinks that they’re protecting the little guy and saving lives, but actually are trapping victims. Like the kid in the alley, their bullies have them by the collar, but the straightjacket of persistent identity prevents victims from escaping.