I’m among the first generation to come of age on the Internet. By 13, I was an expert at chat room sex, spotting cyber-pervs and hiding my secret life from my parents
In 1997, when I was in Grade 6, my friends and I sat at the back of the classroom and talked about sex. We would speculate on what it felt like and place bets on how old we’d be when we finally lost our virginity. We would make fun of the way orgasms sounded in movies and imagine what celebrities’ sex lives involved. Later, at home, we’d reconvene on ICQ, one of the Internet’s first major instant messaging systems, which allowed us to have conversations we wouldn’t want our parents overhearing. That was what the Internet was to us: pretty much what a tree house would have been a few years earlier.
My parents are public sector employees, and they love me as much as parents of only children tend to love their only child. The Beach, which can resemble a small town, is a nice place to grow up. There was a swimming pool nearby, a candy store and a Canadian–Chinese food restaurant called the Garden Gate, which everyone called “The Goof” due to a time when a “Good Food” sign had a few burned-out lights. Of course, the streetcars would ferry us downtown if we ever had the guts to board them. Most of us didn’t. We were good kids.
My family got its first computer when I was in Grade 3. My mom thought it would be a good learning resource for me, but I mostly used it to play side-scrolling MS-DOS games, along with a CD-ROM program called 3-D Movie Maker. When we got the Internet a year later, I used it to make friends with other 3-D movie makers across the globe. People I’d never met in person befriended me over interests that, at the time, felt esoteric. It was a revelation.
I am part of the first generation to come of age online, and my adolescent development dovetails with that of the social web. I’ve lived over half my life through the Internet. My memory often fails to distinguish which of my experiences were real and which were digital. I’ve had many friends I never physically met, and there have been times when real life felt like the limbo between moments lived online.
The “Net Generation”—what the pundit Don Tapscott named us—now stands at 43 per cent of the population, or 15 million Canadians. We grew up in ways that were radically different from any generation before us. In theory, the Internet unshackled us from our milieus.
If we didn’t fit in at school, we could find a social group online. We congregated on mailing lists, online message boards and social networking sites—bolt.com when I was a kid, Facebook today. We could express ourselves in more ways than our parents could ever have dreamed of: online journals (like LiveJournal and DiaryLand) allowed us to share the minutiae of our lives; webspace providers (GeoCities and Angelfire, as well as niche servers like Envy.nu), and then blogs, allowed us to build monuments to ourselves, or at least the people we wanted to be.
It’s no wonder our narcissism has skyrocketed. Today, we are empowered to say anything to a potential audience of millions. And unfortunately, I was empowered to do so during the most shallow period of my life. When I was in elementary school, the spectre of one’s “permanent record” was a deterrent from bad behaviour, a kind of bureaucratic Grimm villain who would strike years in the future, when we least expected it. Now kids write their own permanent records, in graphic detail. We compromise our own privacy in return for validation.
We grew up publicly, and we grew up fast. Kids have always been obsessed with sex, but they’ve never had access to as much explicit content as they can download—according to one study, 42 per cent of 10- to 17-year-olds surveyed had seen porn online in the past year—and the option to erase their trespasses with the “Clear History” button. But porn is old school: there have never been so many opportunities to hook up, virtually or in reality. A 2005 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that one in seven kids had received sexual advances online.
I was one such kid—often, I solicited those advances. Although few admitted it at the time, my friends did, too: after school, before their parents got home; at night, after their parents went to bed. We had cybersex long before the real thing