Recurring themes in panic about youth and technology

Lately I’ve been trying to think about the role of technology in how people are responding to sexting.

Wartella argues that we tend to go through the same cycles of fear and acceptance with youth and media over and over again:

With the introduction of each new wave of innovation in mass media throughout the twentieth century—film, radio, television—debates on the effects of new technology have recurred, especially with regard to the effect on young people. Each new media technology brought with it great promise for social and educational benefits, and great concern for children’s exposure to inappropriate and harmful content.

It’s easy to look at teenagers texting at the dinner table and sending nude pictures and worry that “real” social interaction is being usurped by the cold interface of a machine. Or that online predators are “already in your home.” With every new way of communicating, something may be lost, but something is gained too–and the “old” ways of communicating never really disappear either; they continue to exist alongside the new. Wartella points out that we have worried about every form of mass media in similar ways and with predictable waves of concern that rise and fall in time to worry about the next medium.

Indeed, there is plenty to worry about–media and entertainment indeed produce and maintain our social reality. Yet, the way we talk about this is usually in terms of a medium’s “effect” on people. But this “effect” seems only to apply to the people we think are susceptible to external influence: women, working class people, youth. Youth may adopt new technologies at faster rates, but this does not account for the disproportionate concern about its effect on them.

This is why I am disappointed in the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s new educational campaign about texting, TextED. Though it’s great that its gender-neutral (unlike some US initiatives), it falls into the same pattern of blaming technology for having undue influence on youth. The campaign asks that youth make this pledge:

I will enjoy all of the technologies available to me, but I will not allow them to control me.

The AARP advocates sexting for the over-60 set, suggesting it can spice up their relationships. Why do they not warn their audience to make sure they don’t let cell phones “control” them? Where are the admonishments to CEO’s that they are too “controlled” by their Blackberries and not paying enough attention to their families?

Why are we so invested in the fantasy of perfect self-control, and so convinced that white, middle class, heterosexual men have it, while worrying that no one else really does? And why is media one of the most common sites of concern that supposedly weaker people are being “controlled” by external forces?