With great power comes great responsibility. Though cliché, this quote from Spiderman (2002) sums up many of the problems that have emerged since the inception of the Internet. With its lack of boundaries and rules, the World Wide Web can simultaneously be a very entertaining and very dangerous place. This is especially true for young adults, who may not recognize the implications of their digital footprint and how their online activity can reconstruct their entire character.
For some, this warning comes too late. In 2006, 13-year-old Loli-Chan (her real name has been changed for privacy reasons) sent a stranger nude pictures of herself over the Internet in exchange for virtual coins for the site Go-Gaia.com (now, GaiaOnline). According to Loli, “I wanted little digital clothes for my little digital person, so I sent someone pictures of my boobs and vagina” (Jezebel). As Loli’s internet popularity grew (she eventually acquired her own board on 4Chan and developed a large following), so too did her “reckless” behavior. From sketchy Internet-boyfriends to sexual AIM conversations, Loli’s online activity lured her into the troubling side of the Internet. After nude photos of the girl were leaked, members of her “fanbase,” somehow offended by her behavior, began to post Loli’s personal information online. One person even posted a picture of her house with the caption “Here’s where I’m gonna kidnap her.” The threats escalated.
It’s no surprise, then, that, a few years later, Lori was admitted into a psychiatric facility, where she accrued massive hospital debts that would later force her to move back in with her parents. The voices that Lori had started hearing telling her to post pictures of herself online had finally stopped, but her status as an Internet celebrity had doomed her to a life of isolation. Today, Lori uses fan donations to get by, in addition to the profits she makes from online stripping services.
I end her story intentionally bleak, not because I’m a pessimist at heart (I mean…I am, but it’s not relevant to this discussion) but because I want to show the impact the Internet can have on teenagers, especially teenage girls. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I don’t want to. If I did, some pre-teen out there may brush off this message and trade a photo of their body for digital currency, so they can buy digital goods, so they can decorate their digital person, so they can immerse themselves more and more in their digital world and less and less in reality.
That’s what irks me most about this whole ordeal, that Lori-Chan sacrificed her self-worth, her appreciation for her own body, for a couple of imaginary coins. When I played Neopets in elementary school (cough cough, middle school, cough cough, parts of high school), I never even imagined sharing an image of myself for a certain number of Neopoints, no matter how much I wanted that Faerie Paint Brush. As virtual reality games become infused with social networking capabilities, it becomes more and more tempting for users to sacrifice their own personal attributes for the sake of success in the gaming world. And for what? To decorate a fictional character in a virtual game that you will likely become bored of in a few years anyway. It’s not worth it if you ask me.
Humans are easily adaptable creatures. We remember this fact every time we step into a frigid ocean and remind ourselves that it takes a few minutes for the body to “get used to the cold” or when our parents throw us into the pool without floaties and tell us to swim. We become immune to certain qualities, and dependent on others, and it is this very adaptability that causes problems. Because what happens when a teenager girl grows up with a bunch of “followers” that give her praise whenever she posts nude pictures of herself? What happens when that girl wakes up in the morning knowing that she has hundreds of social media messages waiting to be read? She becomes used to it. And that’s where the real problem lies, because once you have thousands of people waiting to defend you whenever you do something wrong, or ready to commend you when you do something right, how do you learn what’s what? How do you learn that sending nude photos to strangers is not okay or that sexting someone you’ve never met will likely end badly? The answer is, you don’t.
Without these boundaries, young girls may find themselves making poor decisions, ones that they may never be able to take back. And while there have been efforts made to curb the destructiveness of one’s digital footprint, the Internet cannot completely be stopped. It is a powerful entity that can disseminate information faster than one can delete it. And so, I use Uncle Ben’s famous quote as a warning. As Internet users, each and every one of us has an enormous amount of power. How we use that power, though, and the pathways we make with it can determine the course of the rest of our lives. If we’re not careful, we may end up trading our innocence for a couple of pixels. And that’s something you’ll never get back.
Info via Jezebel.com. Image via Shutterstock.