When you’re around twenty years old, chances are high you experienced that strange shift from analog to digital firsthand. I still remember that period when I was 7 years old during which my grade school suddenly switched from blackboards and chalk to smartboards and digipens. Growing up with the internet and its communities still in their early stages was definitely a double-edged sword. On one hand you could say I’m a digital native, surfing the web since I was five and never needing any classes for it. On the other hand, I have matured way faster than I was supposed to.
My parents didn’t realise what the potential of the internet in the hands of a young child could be. How could they, when they’ve only just started exploring it themselves? There were a few ground rules everyone knew to keep themselves safe on the internet: Don’t give out your real name, address, phone number, credit card number or personal document number. Also, don’t talk to strangers! The first rule was pretty clear to me and the second one was drilled into my brain constantly, everywhere, by every adult. However, wasn’t talking to strangers far away what the internet was all about? Do the young adults here still remember Habbo Hotel, MySpace or Omegle?
As a kid I have made many friends online through shared interests in many different communities, from fandoms to art spaces, from kids my age to people way older. By the time I was ten I had joined writer communities where we would talk about our own characters and make up stories for them, that we would then post for the world to see! Having adult friends made me feel mature, and creating content alongside them made me feel intelligent. The problem with that was that I was exposed to a lot more back then than a kid should be exposed to. Adults consume different content than children do, but since I wanted to impress and catch up to the ones I admired, I started to engage in that type of media too.
Soon I was reading horror books and erotica that my adult friends recommended or even wrote themselves, and I was encouraged to try writing that type of content myself too. I would get tips on how to do my research, so my writing would become more realistic. In my mind the darker and more disturbing the content I consumed and created was, the more mature and intelligent I appeared which in turn made me feel more accepted within the communities. It didn’t take long for me to start participating in doing research through the dark web.
Consuming so many disturbing images and stories at such a young age without anyone contesting it, warped my view on how normal they actually were. Especially when combined with the space I was introduced to them, since they were considered a scientific part of the writing process. For a long time I was desensitised to images of genuine murders or the glorification of pedophelia, as a ten year old kid myself. No one warned me about that part of the internet. “Strangers will kidnap you if you tell them your real address or name!” was a lesson every kid knew. Little did the parents know that strangers didn’t need to kidnap you to get what they wanted. Realizing how detrimental those relationships were and then working through all that damage will take a long time, and I may never truly get over my grooming. This is just one of my experiences and sadly I know many stories like my own, of children being groomed and taken advantage of, all from behind that tiny screen.
To my parents the communities I was in didn’t sound all that sinister or interesting, so they didn’t really care about what was going on within them. I don’t blame them either, because they had no way of knowing how communities like that could be misused, especially since they had no experience with anything of the sort. However, I’m glad that my generation has grown up through these dangers so we can try to protect the generations after. Internet safety should be more nuanced and thought out, and we can help work on that with our collective experiences. Children are smarter than they look and more vulnerable than they seem, and it’s our job as adults to make the internet safe for them.