Internet on Trial: Celebration or Paranoia?

by Sumit Garg
by Sumit Garg

Internet is frequently held to be transforming social relationships, the economy, and vast areas of public and private life across all ages and, probably very soon, across all cultures no matter how remotely they are located (thanks to initiatives like Internet.org). Such arguments are routinely recycled in popular debates, in advertising and publicity materials, and indeed in academic contexts as well. Research discussions of the internet veer between celebration and paranoia; on the one hand the technology is seen to create new forms of community and civic life and to offer immense resources for personal liberation and empowerment, while on the other it poses dangers to privacy, to create new forms of inequality and commercial exploitation, as well as leaving the individual prey to addiction and pornography.

These kinds of ideas about the impact of technology tend to take on an even greater force when they are combined with ideas about childhood and youth. The debate about the impact of media and technology on children has always served as a focus for much broader hopes and fears about social change. On the one hand, there is a powerful discourse about the ways in which digital technology is threatening or even destroying childhood. Young people are seen to be at risk, not only from more obvious dangers such as pornography and online paedophiles, but also from a wide range of negative physical and psychological consequences that derive from their engagement with technology. Like television, digital media are seen to be responsible for a whole litany of social ills—addiction, antisocial behaviour, eating disorders, educational underachievement, commercial exploitation, depression, envy, stunted imaginations . . . and the list goes on. In recent years, however, the debate has come to be dominated by a very different argument. Unlike those who bemoan the media’s destruction of childhood innocence, advocates of the new “digital generation” regard technology as a force of liberation for young people—a means for them to reach past the constraining influence of their elders, and to create new, autonomous forms of communication and community. Far from corrupting the young, technology is seen to be creating a generation that is more open, more democratic, more creative, and more innovative than their parents’ generation.

The more I research on this topic, the clearer I see an unavoidable dialectical approach, in which internet is both socially shaped and socially shaping. In other words, its role and impact is partly determined by the users to which it is put, but also contains inherent constraints and possibilities which limits the ways in which it can be used, and which are in turn largely shaped by the social and economic interest of those who control its production, circulation, and distribution. Understanding and becoming aware of these constraints and possibilities is a key factor to decide the extent to which we will allow internet to influence our daily lives and ways of thinking and feeling, as well as the impact we wish to have on it.

Promoting digital literacy among children and young people could be a plausible approach to positively influence the way in which young people interact with internet and therefore, influence the way the internet evolves in the future. The challenge is how to engage children and young people on activities that, far from promoting internet safety (which young people hate), aim to provide the knowledge required to develop healthy digital citizens. At CaSMa we are committed to working with and for young people to facilitate reflection, deliberation and discussion about the internet we all want. This approach thus begins to move beyond the notion of internet as a simple cause of social change, approaching it instead as an opportunity to engage knowledgeably with the digital world to ensure the full potential of the internet is realised.

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