Growing Up On The Internet
Illustration Credit: The Newspaper
For anyone growing up with the Internet, we should be all too familiar with childhood warnings to be wary of whom we spoke to and what personal information we revealed online. These cautions are almost as familiar as logging in. However, few can say that they ever heeded those warnings as seriously as they were expected to. I certainly didn’t. As a lonely, art-inclined pre-teen, once I realized that all the validation I desired was online, no warning could have stopping me from creating an online account and flooding it with whatever it was that I called art at the time.
My first Deviantart account was a foray into a world I had never seen before, a place into which I could throw my art and have total strangers tell me how impressed they were. This satiated me for a short while, but soon I wanted more. I saw the way other, more successful artists engaged with their fans and followers by putting out commissions and taking requests. So, at the veritable age of fourteen, I opened my commissions for the first time and announced that I would be open to taking requests from the people who followed me.
In retrospect this was endowing much more trust in the moral character of the Internet than I should have. Unfortunately no website is free from those wretched few who seem to have decided that there is no need for manners or good taste online, and Deviantart was no exception. And so, it was one day after school I came home to find an innocuous message sitting in my inbox. Opening it revealed that the person who sent it hadn’t even bothered to ask if I would do anything for them in the first place and had instead launched right into a graphic description of the very specific bondage porn they wanted me to draw them. Yes, bondage porn. It wasn’t until that moment that my fourteen-year-old self realized exactly where my parents had been coming from whenever they warned me about the dangers of talking to people online.
Today, with the internet being even more accessible than it ever has been, there are more minors using it as their primary method of interacting with media than ever before. Thus, the question of who is responsible for curating minors’ experiences online becomes crucial to discuss. The issue has been divisive, with people arguing both for and against the restriction of adult content online, or in other places that minors could easily access it. The most extreme amongst those who argue for restriction going so far as to claim that in order to make the internet safe for minors all content must be policed by members of any given community to ensure it remains within an acceptable moral ground. For the sake, of course, of those underage consumers who may end up seeing something they should not, or are not ready for.
It’s whenever this debate rears its head that I think about the time someone sent me a request for bondage porn over the Internet. Looking back on it, I now have a much better understanding of the warnings that had been afforded to me as I made my account, but at the time I saw them as nothing more than useless blocks of text I needed to click through blindly before I could get to doing whatever I wanted. This is the case I imagine for many of us, and is unlikely to be any different for any other newcomer to the world wide web. For my younger self, age really was just a number, and, if pretending I was older than I actually was could get me the things I wanted, then no warnings regardless how accurate or well intentioned would have stopped me from doing so.
In this context, whose fault was it when a minor was exposed to something they shouldn’t have been? The minor who lied about their age, or the adult who thought they were interacting with someone of age? A single detail that can change an interaction from an offence to merely in very bad taste. The solution mentioned earlier may suddenly sound somewhat more reasonable, after all, why risk the chances of exposing minors to NSFW content when you can just ensure that such content never exists for them to come across in the first place?
Aside from the fact that doing so would be a colossal infringement on the right of free speech, there is no way to honestly, and in an unbiased fashion, construct a system of morality that would be fair across all levels, or even applicable to all minors. Adult content has always existed and trying to pretend otherwise, or believing that by trying to eliminate the right of one sort of person to create content we are protecting a vulnerable group requires a great deal of self deception. Whether we want to or not, minors are going to come across adult content, online or otherwise. Rather than trying to shield them from the inevitable, making clear exactly what 18+ constitutes as a warning would be a far more effective defense.
While this sort of content may be more accessible than it ever has been, if a site has a warning declaring its brand of content and a person underage still chooses to go ahead then it cannot be the fault of the content creators if that person then becomes uncomfortable. Furthermore, if a person is too young to understand those warnings in the first place then it is still not the fault of the content creator but rather of the parent or guardian who failed to properly provide safe boundaries for their child.
No one type of person should have the right to decide who is allowed to create content online. Fundamentally, the type of experience each of us have online is unique to the boundaries we create and the borders we refuse to cross. Thus, the maintenance of those boundaries should not fall on anyone’s shoulders but our own. While I confess that I could have lived without being sent bondage porn at fourteen, I would rather have had an uncomfortable experience then, than the need for my personal comfort taking precedence over that of everyone else online. It is the internet after all, and it is just as easy to fall into something we rather wouldn’t as it is to click away.