Attention too seductive to quit

By Francisco Dao , written on October 16, 2012

From The News Desk

Many of you may have read about Amanda Todd last week, a 15 year old girl who took her own life in order to escape the despair of bullying. Before she killed herself, she posted a heart-wrenching video on YouTube where she tells her story in silence with a series of flash cards, but as I watched it, something stood out for me. While she had transferred to different schools and moved several times, she never left Facebook. Even her farewell message was broadcast to the world.

Most people who read about Amanda probably saw it as a tragic story about bullying, which of course it is. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that she wouldn’t log off. Despite the fact that her story of pain begins online, and Facebook was repeatedly used to torment her, she never left the online world even as it ultimately pushed her to the saddest ending.

It made me wonder what kind of relationship younger generations have with the social Web. How many other kids out there are so desperate for attention that they would seek it online even at the cost of deadly emotional pain? In Amanda’s case, it seems as if the Internet became like an abusive relationship, where regardless of how much hurt it inflicted on her, she still couldn’t find the strength to leave.

The appeal of the Web hardly needs to be explained; instant access, semi-anonymity, the ability to connect with an almost unlimited world of people, and above all else the allure of attention are irresistible. For many children it’s the ultimate playground, where they can act out their fantasies and be treated on an equal level as adults. But these exact traits are also what make it a paradise for bullies and stalkers.

If the bullying online seems far more cruel than anything we suffered as children, that’s because it is. Before the Internet, bullying was done face to face, and the humiliation took place in front of, at most, a few hundred kids at school.

But the social Web has changed all of that. The anonymity provided to tormentors, combined with the scale and audience online, have created a place that is far more dangerous than any schoolyard beating. Additionally, indiscretions such as Amanda’s flashing, which in the past would have been forgotten by the start of the next school year, can now be captured and used to forever haunt their youthful victims.

It is into this environment that we have placed our children with little warning of the dangers and consequences. And as adults have become more busy and distracted, I suspect children are increasingly seeking out attention online to replace what they’re missing in the real world.

Obviously we can’t shut down the Internet, and thus far parental controls have seemed largely useless. But while parents worry about their children accessing pornography, I wonder how many of them even remotely understand the dangerous relationship their children may be developing with the online world, as they pursue the attention that they so desperately crave. It is a relationship that can quickly become painful, and yet many children will still find the attention too seductive to quit.

Perhaps my concerns are overblown, but I hope for the sake of their children that parents at least develop a better understanding of the relationship their kids have with the social Web.

Many years ago I had a friend whose fiance cheated on her. In explaining why she chose to stay with him, she told me, "I would rather be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all." This seems to also describe the relationship Amanda Todd had with the online world. I wonder how many other kids out there feel the same way.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]