In recent times, there have been scary stories about how the Internet is corrupting our sweet innocent young people with pornography and other ungodly content.
Or, if not that, then they are at risk of being ensnared by sex predators and possibly even being eaten by online aliens. The risk of online predators is real, but is the Internet really as bad for young people as we are led to believe?
Fortunately, there are people who are more informed about these things. So, ladies and gentlemen, we introduce Bill Tancer. Mr Tancer is king of “online competitive intelligence”.
Online intelligence is the highly specialised art of studying the massive database of the things people do on the Internet; the sites they go to, the search words they use, the content they download, the goods they buy, and the people they chat with.
This information gives insight into how societies are changing, and can be used to predict who, for example, is going to win Big Brother Africa, which song is going to be a hit, which product is going to make millions.
Unlike opinion polls, and other surveys, online intelligence does not lie. For example you can ask one thousand people what they do on the Internet. If 80 per cent tell you they spend most of their time on the BBC and CNN sites reading news and researching on Wikipedia, you will report that in your survey.
Online intelligence doesn’t need to talk to them. It will track the sites they go to and the words they search, and find that contrary to what they say, half of them are going to sports sites and the rest to dating sites. That is why Tancer’s book Click, subtitled What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the way we use information and what the Internet reveals about us.
The data shows that contrary to popular thinking, the visits to pornography sites have been declining. The decline has been significant among the people whom parents worry are being corrupted by the Internet; 18-24-year-olds. The sharpest drop has been among 25-34-year-olds.
According to the data, Tancer reports that the number of young people going to pornography has declined as more of them join social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace, and the video-sharing site YouTube. One of Tancer’s young Facebook friends tells him: “Who needs porn when Facebook gives you the opportunity to hook up in the flesh?”
In other words, many young people were driven to pornography because they were lonely and unhappy. Facebook has partly solved that problem for them. The other thing Tancer studied is what young people in general search for on the internet. Queries like “how to kiss” were high up on the list. However, for boys, questions like “how to find a girlfriend” and “how to flirt with girls” are prominent.
Tancer notes that female friends are more likely to share, (and in many societies, girls are taught social skills and how to navigate the relationship minefield). Men are far less likely to share and ask questions, and of course you will hardly find any parent who sits his or her son down to teach him the best pick up lines, and how not to make a fool of himself in front of women.
Therefore, the Internet has levelled the playing field between men and men. Young men who previously had no one to turn to to ask difficult questions about relationship today can Google or discuss them on Facebook. So, contrary to common fears, the Internet is keeping many young people out of hell.
Secondly, the Internet has added value for teenagers because parents let them drift into boredom. It has become a big time unpaid nanny. The structure of the modern family also makes the Internet essential. When we were young, the average family size was six children, and most mothers didn’t work. Today, both parents are most likely to be working, and they have two children, or even one.
If you have five siblings, by the time you have played or fought with them all (under the watchful eye of your stay-at-home mother), it is midnight, and the only break you had was for dinner. Today many kids have no siblings to play with, and both parents return home from work after 8pm.
Rather than mourn about how the Internet is corrupting the kids, parents — and pastors and priests — should be thanking it. And should hook up the kids with one at the house if they haven’t done so yet.