The Disconnect of Internet Communication

By Michelle Martin
Published January 12, 2010

Surfing around Arts and Letters Daily, I came across The Edge question for 2010: How is the internet changing the way you think?

I haven't yet waded through all of the 167 (to date) responses of various academics and essayists, but one by Sherry Turkle, MIT psychologist, caught my eye. It addresses what she calls the disconnect of internet communication: the fact that it is public and permanent, even though it feels private to users; and that it is shaping the psychological and political sensibility of young people, who are resigned to the lack of privacy.

She writes:

Julia, eighteen, says "I've heard that school authorities and local police can get into your Facebook," but doesn't want to know the details. "I live on Facebook" she explains, and "I don't want to be upset." A seventeen-year-old girl thinks that Facebook "can see everything," but even though "you can try to get Facebook to change things," it is really out of her hands.

She sums up: "That's just the way it is." A sixteen-year-old girl says that even without privacy, she feels safe because "No one would care about my little life." For all the talk of a generation empowered by the Net, the question of online privacy brings out claims of intentionally vague understandings and protests of impotence. This is a life of resignation: teens are sure that at some point their privacy will be invaded, but that this is the course of doing business in their world.

Do check out her whole essay, in which she writes of her own grandparents who were Eastern Europeans and who lived in a society where it was assumed that one's mail could be, and was, read.

She also reminds us of psychologist Erik Erikson's argument about the adolescent need for "a time and space for relatively consequence-free experimentation" in which to "fall in and out of love with people and ideas" - something any parent of a teenager could tell you is important.

Facebook is not that space, especially since, according to Computerworld, CEO Mark Zuckerberg contends that privacy just isn't that important to people anymore.

Last word to Dr. Turkle:

In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, a zone that needs to be protected.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 13, 2010 at 10:17:04

Thoughtful little post, Michelle - and an interesting article you linked to. Another perspecitve on the conflicting expectations on facebook can be found at

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted January 13, 2010 at 13:16:13

I hear what you're saying, especially on privacy. And it's especially true that culture is shaping these expectations. I wonder at the in

I do differ in what I think of Erikson and Hall, especially the concept of "moratorium."

Many problems are caused because we now give an extended period, often over a decade, for young men and women - now called "teenagers" - to experience "relatively consequence-free experimentation."

That's not what the transition from child to adult was for most of history. It was a transition, often with ceremony, to becoming an adult, albeit a young one. With that came real responsibilities, serious roles, expectations, risk, and ability to fail.

There was always stress in the transition. (I once looked at cultural abd behavioural differences at this stage in life between Northern and Southern states in 19th-century America. Really interesting how it highlights how culture exacerbates or minimizes the stress inherent in the transition and what roles existed.).

But adolescence as a separate phase of life, as Hall (with his expectations of sturm und drang and educational theories) and later Erikson defined it, and as it came into being over WWII and turned into a marketing term, is a relatively new and unsuccessful phenomenon.

And we have teenagers who seek out experiences where failure is an option and risk is real because it doesn't come anywhere else in life... and I don't think that's the answer

And it's a big tide. And I don't know the answers about how it's reversed, especially in a world where education and employment is absolutely focused around 14-22 being the bare minimum of adolescence (no one expects adult behaviour of university students in the sense that it's culturally a time of enjoyment, vacation, freedom from responsibility and the continuation of similar academic duties at a higher level.)

I do know that the idea of "future consequences" from Facebook posts aren't in young people's minds, or even something to worry about now. There's no immediate risk of any kind... and when it gets to the point where it may cost them, the bed has been made and then one copes with it as best possible.

And when it comes to privacy, is there any other area in life where they've been told they have rights in that regard? Perhaps personally, but I don't think there's much real discussion about that. There's certainly very little they can do in the way of engagement, lawmaking, civic empowerment, government, voting, etc - so where is the education or empowerment to change any of that?

Just thinking it through, and I know there will be points I've missed or misspoke... but I guess I don't see how a society such as ours gives teenagers any reason to expect they could change any aspect of things like this - so it's not only the cost of communication, it's an absolutely unchangeable one, at least as far as their world is concerned.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 13, 2010 at 18:52:23

Meredith-- thanks for your thoughtful remarks (which I upvoted). For me, in the statement, "a time and space for relatively consequence-free experimentation", the key word is relatively. I would never argue that life should be entirely consequence-free, but that there should be a little more mercy shown to young people because of their relative lack of experience and wisdom. I would never argue that they should be freed from the immediate consequences of their actions, but I am concerned about the effect of them reliving the error repeatedly,through the magic of technology, on their ability to begin afresh.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted January 14, 2010 at 04:59:30

That article written by Ms Turkel state that the grandparents were frightened by the McCarthy era, which reminded them of the situations they fled from in eastern europe, the supposition, that all mail was read.

In todays world, maybe it is just me but everything, is documented, so no one is really safe, when they write or make any postings. Everything we do is tracked, spied on, recorded, there is no such thing as freedom anymore. Big brother is recording all that we do and say. Anyone could be deemed as an enemy of the state, given the political leadership or agenda.

As a parent, we try to teach our children to be independant, we try to teach them consequences regarding their actions but in the long run, life own lessons are sometimes the hard ones despite what wisdom we can give.

For those who have not had children, can make all the suppostions they want, the real experience is something that is different, no one parent is an expert and no one child is the same as another. Some children are born rebels and will be so all thier lives. They are not conformists, they march to a different drummer. I like these types of people better then those who follow the group mentality.

But to follow Michellès thinking, teenagers or young adults are still in a learning process, hell even at my age, it is still a learning process. Should they be held accountable to the point where they cannot get a job for something that was written or a picture posted. I do not think so.

I have seen some women to be particularly nasty, escpecially those who think that they live upright lives, make no mistakes, those are the type of women who think just because they have a husband, a house that they are better then say a single mother or parent.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted January 16, 2010 at 15:09:26

I couldn't agree more with you, Michelle - wisdom and experience, by definition, is what you lack when you're young. And exactly what parents (and the larger community, often) is there for. The disconnect between age groups in our culture is scary... and certainly unprecedented.

Raising Boys Without Men by Drexler and Gross is an interesting read. The title's a bit of a misnomer (intentional male role models are sought out by most of these women) but it has a lot of interesting case studies and varied situations in it - though it's anecdotal, I enjoyed it.

I'd take it with real research like Wallerstein's Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. But in a world where many parenting situations are the reality, it's not acceptable or compassionate to say "this is the foregone conclusion and your future is set in stone" - especially when many young people do turn out very well - from the young caregiver phenomenon to my own anecdotal experience with family and friends. (.

The "young caregiver" phenomenon alone (kids who step up to care for parents/siblings) and my husband's own experience as a child of divorce certainly reassure me that many who come out of divorce do well - not without scars, but no one is without scars from something.

Parenting is one side of expectations, and unquestionably the most important and influential. I don't speak from that side - yet.

However, there's huge cultural forces and questions also at play, and our institutions - from parenting to religion to education to government - can often reflect current theories and attitudes (after all, we have made huge advances in most areas) rather than critical thinkers with a wide historical perspective.

I suppose Facebook - and its use - is simply reflecting current attitudes about privacy. I wonder where we'll be in ten more years. :)

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By Whisper (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2010 at 15:04:59

Nuking the internet for lack of privacy suggests, of course, that people should be ashamed of their life-style experiments, their dirty little habits. That they need to keep their closet doors closed for fear someone will disover the skeletons inside. But what if the doors are opened and there's the background to an interesting, complex person found to be inside? The need to keep secrets is a greater problem than the danger of their revelation.

But I am intrigued by the fact that, in a way, the internet, as more and more people use it as a medium for individual empowerment, seems to increasingly become a single, self-aware entity. It's as if we're building a new entity with the internet as the nervous system. As that happens the net needs to be open and inclusive.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 19, 2010 at 19:55:45

On the same topic, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre is going after Nexopia:

Lawyer John Lawford says the Edmonton-based website should be held to a higher standard than other social networking sites since many of its users are minors, some as young as 13.

He complains that Nexopia profiles, by default, can be accessed by any Internet user and show up in Google's search results.

Read the rest in the Globe.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 19, 2010 at 22:23:19

Then you won't mind having a webcam in the room the next time you use the bathroom?

They're already watching you while you shop, and not just the security cameras.

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