Razer: Gen X is culpable for its offspring's online vulnerability

According to those many news sites which find little to worry about more earnestly than the destruction of our youth by the culture, the popular social media platform ask.fm poses an entirely new threat. The new format, not the old behaviour that has come to inhabit it, is held responsible for suicides by US teenagers and one recent case of a missing young woman on the NSW North Coast.

That suicide rates among Australian adolescents have declined over time, or that figures on missing persons, a group in which young women have been long over-represented, remain unchanged are of little interest to outlets who maintain a tradition of blaming mass culture.

Actually, they’ve been doing this since the birth of a mass culture of which they form a part and in spite of the fact risk factors for those young people who suicide or go missing are documented. These do not include heavy metal music, video games or Facebook but tend to the less newsworthy like poverty, race and abuse. Zzzz. Who wants to read about the monotonous effects of the social when we can blame a sleazy, but exciting internet entrepreneur or a “bullying” culture?

Well, probably those people whose lives have been so forcefully impacted by the terrible effects of the social that they’d like to see things change. But, this audience promises little to advertisers otherwise comfortable with a “news” media that sells the comfortable formless fear knowing that they will purchase the formless solutions that fund it.

Ask.fm does not kill nor does it extract young people from their homes. It doesn’t do anything, really, except engage the lower urges of a particular demographic and, perhaps, provide a mildly instructive look at a part of what we have become. Like most cultural instants, it is the evidence, and not the cause, of a particular misdeed.

I have to say that if I were adolescent, I would almost certainly use ask.fm. At 13, I would gaze into the mirror and pretend that my reflection was George Negus and my hairbrush a microphone. I would have been drawn to a utility that permits users, often anonymised, to ask other users “interview” style questions. On ask.fm, these are sometimes coy and complimentary as in, “How do you stay so incredibly good looking?” These are often brazen and insulting as in, “Why don’t you just die in a horrible fire?” In other words, interactive business as usual.

The thing that stuns me about this self-interested game is not that it accelerates tedious behaviour; that’s the internet’s specialty. Fuel-injected human idiocy doesn’t shock me after 20 years of being guilty of and subject to it. What is surprising, though, is the way everyone is appalled by the nastiness of the “bullies” but no one seems overly troubled by the flatterers. For mine, this reliance on crowd approval is the problem here.

While the speed of online is certainly as harmful as it is inevitable and awful people are asking young and vulnerable people awful questions, what the actual fuck does anyone expect? Of COURSE this would be an efficient channel for schoolyard cruelty and perhaps, then, the question is not “how do we stop the internet?” but how do we keep the desire for externally provided “self-esteem” from being naturalised.

Having mass, anonymous attention is not a right that can be policed or upheld. It is, as I used to find back when I was a modestly famous old-media proposition, a privilege with some very shitty downsides. I was diagnosed, and I think not unreasonably, with PTSD after a stalker pursued me and I remain paralysed, fearful and completely unsuitable for most work more than 15 years later. This is what can happen if you’re open to and hungry for attention. And, no, I am not “victim blaming”. I am simply stating the flipping obvious which is: if your sense of self has become largely dependent on the opinions and attention of those to whom you are barely connected, as mine was, then shit is going to go down when the opinions and attention you attract are of an unpleasant sort.

Back in the time of my ask.fm beta, very few of us became sufficiently famous to warrant negative, anonymous attention. So what I didn’t have as a very young person in a very niche role was anyone to prepare me for the possibility of pain. But what younger people navigating this new territory in immense numbers need now is preparation. And that’s not to say they should be chided or slavishly monitored or that someone should turn the possibility of online anonymity off. The solution must not be state surveillance. The solution cannot be more private company controls on “bullying” because there’s always a way ’round. The solution, if there is one at all, lies not in demanding that we penalise the very young but in remediating the behaviour of the middle-aged.

There is so much that is said about the vulnerability and heedlessness of the young online but so little that is mentioned about the culpability of their elders in this matter. It’s not teenagers who established a self-absorbed selfie habit. It’s my generation of idiots. We are the original over-sharers.

So many of the X-ers who have raised the youth for which we worry are unwitting stage-parents. For a decade, it has been my mob publicly disclosing every thought, vacation and weight-loss accomplishment. While it’s true that this new intimacy has its advantages and the shift of the domestic realm into a limited public space brings legitimising relief to the lives of those otherwise isolated, it is also true that if I see another picture of a sun-kissed mother distributing hand-made coconut macarons to her gifted children at the beach, I will phone the welfare people. #Bliss

It’s not, of course, just primary care-givers impeding the flow of information with their cryptic demands for Likes and Shares. Childless other persons, including myself, serve up emotional status updates, humble-brags about their level of professional responsibility and cardboard-sign calls for “compassion” on social issues which, of course, they have by the tonne but is otherwise missing in the general population. We communicate without pause about us.

Much of my generation is in the attention-seeking business and we have evolved an appetite for the approval of others and an aversion to their critique. We are people who confuse “self-esteem”, itself a fairly dodgy concept, for approbation. We, a generation that thinks healthy self-regard can only be provided by the regard of distant others, should never have been permitted to reproduce.

For people of my age-range to write, as they so often do, about the susceptibility of the young to attention presupposes their own immunity to it. But, we are not immune. Of course, when you’re a bit older you generally become a bit more impervious to cruelty but as we got older, we also became more hooked on attention.  When the attention we court and upon which we have come to rely is positive, we are affirmed. When it’s negative, we are crushed. And, if we are members of the more traditional media class, we write entire articles about it—not a week goes by without a prominent woman writer disclosing an online threat— and try to turn these negations into proof that we are, after all, marvellous, brave people. Who should be copiously Shared and Liked.

I do understand that threats are horrible, that bullying is unpleasant and that sometimes, one would be foolish not to take action against such aggression.(Even though we could all do without another Heartbreaking Exposé on online hostility by someone who is employed to provoke a milder version of it.)  But, what I also understand, and have understood for some decades, is that the attention-seeking business has its inevitable downsides.

One of them is that we all have received the impression of great connectedness to conceal the reality of an ever greater selfishness. Another, of course, is that we are raising a generation to whom the idea of selfhood has narrowed. When the stuff of one’s self is something that has become almost entirely produced by others, we can only expect younger selves will be more easily undone. And the only sure way to secure these selves is not through control by the state or private companies. It’s by raising children without the consistent reminder that the stable self is not built through Likes and Shares.

13 responses to “Razer: Gen X is culpable for its offspring's online vulnerability

  1. Helen, you have not understood. I do did not offer spiritual advice; spiritualism is theological. Questions relating to the soul, afterlife, heaven, hell are of little importance in buddhism because this assumes that these concepts are ultimately unverifiable. Whether or not the soul or the spirit exists, we still have to live, suffer, and die in this world.

    On the point of preferring ‘fleshy’ women, I do not think expressing this preference is necessarily a negative, or is even unusual. We all have body preferences. You state that you have a ‘Body confidence’. This is something you could not possess without a standardized concept of what constitutes the desirable according to your own interpretation of this, and what does not. From memory, I believe you wrote an article about a brief rendezvous with a friend after the cessation of your long term relationship in which you describe his/her ‘Tall, sexy body’. My point is that I am not guilty of anything that you yourself are not–I am not sure, honestly, there is a charge to answer. I did not resort to vulgarity, or use the term ‘boner’; those are not my words, Helen–they are yours.

    You mention PTSD, and the experience that led to this. It seems this has shaped your attitude towards the male sex, has skewed it to the degree that you have begun to misrepresent the reality of things. This is not an unreasonable place to find oneself after such an experience, I can understand it. For example, you state that Female Youth are over-represented in suicide rates ( and traditionally have been) but this is incorrect. According to the ABS:

    “Men in general are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. In the 15-24 years age group men are more than five times more likely than women to commit suicide”.

    So when I made a comment about body preference, your kneejerk reaction was to condemn me as a base pervert. I understand why you would do that, and I forgive you; but the continued extrapolation of the manifestation of hate you have for the individual responsible for your PTSD onto non-relevant males will only breed hatred–between yourself, and those men.And nothing good can come from such an arrangement. It is something that will cause you to suffer, and others to suffer. Hatred does not cease by hatred–hatred multiplies by hatred. And nothing good can come of hatred.

    There is a line from Dhammpada that says: ‘Whatever a hater may do to a hater, or an enemy to an enemy, a wrongly-directed mind will do us greater mischief’. I ask that you consider this and the implications this idea has with respect to the event that caused your PTSD. I am sorry if I seem to be taking liberties in this post, I am practicing samma vaca, or ‘correct speech’.

    Good luck Helen.

    1. I stated no such thing. I explicitly stated, based on ABS data sets, that missing persons are more likely to be young females.
      As for your view that I have a diminished attitude toward an entire gender. LOL. I do not disdain masculinity. Just commenters who obstruct conversation about the original post in order to talk about their completely unrelated interests and make completely unrelated personal charges about the author. In short, I enjoin you to discuss matters at hand and keep your personal musings to other forms of media.

  2. One of the reasons why it is worth taking ask.fm to task about this is that while “the internet” may not be the problem, certain parts of the internet encourage different kinds of behaviour. Whilst ask.fm may not go into people’s houses and remove their children, the combination of offline contacts and online anonymity that we see in ask.fm is an unusual risk specific to this site architecture. In my research, I have sought to understand which social networks produce the best outcomes in terms of behaviour and emotional wellbeing for young people, and ask.fm clearly comes out as a loser. http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/8378/
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14682753.2014.960763 , free version at http://uclan.academia.edu/AmyBinns

  3. Look, in a way I’m tempted by “Razer on ask.fm” just for your responses. After all, you are the most literate and intelligent person with witty riposte that I have had the pleasure to encounter.

    I despair, however, that this concept of online ‘bullying’ (or mobbing as it probably is more accurately described) will end up as another thing lumped into an ‘awareness’ phenomenon that requires an awareness ribbon and special AFL round but not a lot more than that.

    Personally, I am becoming concerned that professionally I will begin to see more personality ‘type’ disorders, where the desired personality or identity of the individual which is expressed/created online (particularly in formative years such as pre/early teens), is one that can never be met in real life – creating a pathological cycle of depression, anxiety, despair and maladaptive behaviors to meet a construction that may never be achievable. You refer to it as a narrowing of self – but I suspect it works in the opposite direction and will herald as many problems. I am, at this late hour, without suggestion of how to lessen that probability but I should probably write something about it …

  4. There is a sense in which every generation is ‘raised’ by the following generation/s. The internet, particularly its social side, has always been novelty for Gen X. It is therefore likely that we will never quite get it in the same way that the “natives” get it.

    Much of the current-day internet, including social, was created by Gen Y (people currently between 21 and 38). Its an exaggeration, but the most valuable role Gen X and the baby boomers might have played is to ensure revitalisation as Gen Y continually moves on to different platforms and sites in a hopeless attempt to avoid us.

    Gen Y is more internet savvy than Gen X, and Gen Z will be more internet savvy again. It is an very unfortunate reality that in such a immense playground, people will get hurt. The solutions, and they will never be perfect solutions, will invariably come from Gen Y and Gen Z. If they can humour Gen X and the baby boomers, anything is possible.

  5. I both agree and disagree–as I typically do with anything related to social theory. I think any phenomena that involves complex human interrelationships between human beings can only be defined as non-fluid at the meso level..a lot of why I have so little respect for the social sciences relates to this. Unless you’re talking about economics, yeah–there’s just simply to many variables–and sociology likes to make broad, sweeping declaritives which, when subjected to logical scrutiny, kind of get tangled in the nettle of their own dialectics, or otherwise completely unravel.

    Anyway, I think I get the gist of what you’re saying–and there’s definitely something there. It is important that people know who they are, and what they are, and that this is something that is exceedingly problematic, and difficult to resolve, in the technocratic and highly fractured societies which produce mass, and easily accessible, cultural norms, in the contemporary west and emerging Asian power societies. This isn’t really a new idea ( it’s a problem that neo-constructivists would be interested in).

    Is Gen X to blame? Probably. There’s no other generation around to point the finger at, I suppose.

    On the issue of identity and crises of the self, I have included the below addendum:

    In my own life, I have been able to resolve crises of the self, and identity, and the need for validation/approval through study of the Mahayana Buddhism. It is something that taught me that so long as one possesses a sense of self ( which is a trick of the ego) one will surely experience suffering as a result of it. Sorrow will surely follow, as will hatred. In such people these things will never cease. They will always be eroded, embattled and destroyed by such thoughts as ‘s/he robbed me, s/he is better looking than me, s/he is smarter, defeated me, thinks s/he is better than me’ and on and on ad finitum. One of my favourite parts of the dhammpada sums this up simply in saying ‘Hatred does not, cannot cease by hatred at any time. This is an old rule’.
    And that is as a true a thing as I have ever known.

    In order to free oneself of the endless trappings, disappointments, personal disasters which inevitably arise as a consequence of social realities and experiences not aligning, or working with, the dream of the self–one must strive to abolish the self, and the ideas of eternalism, and uniqueness–the idea of ‘I’. This is not easy to do–very, very difficult. But if one can manage it even so much, it will be better, not worse for that person. If not, one will simply walk through life as an ever-changing….bricolage, or identities. That is, in striving to be somebody, we become nobody at all.

    The self is born out of a fear of death. But even this is a sort of trick, because nothing can pass from existence into non existence; if this was the case, existence itself could not exist.Even physics tells us this. Energy cannot be created and destroyed, but can only be moved and changed form. The self is the ego’s horse. If you can let go of the idea of ‘I’, you can conquer the ego. And when death does come, you will be ready. The fear of death is the fear of nonbeing–but this is a mirage, a misconception. Remove the ideas of eternalism, and you will remove the fear of death. Remove the fear of death, and you remove the need for the self. Remove the self, and you remove the woes, anxieties, and tragedies the self buys you. A cloud, for example, can be become rain, or snow, or sleet or ice or dew or vapor. But it cannot become nothing. The trick is teaching oneself to see all those manifestations in the cloud, as opposed to seeing the cloud as a thing that is and then isn’t, forever. From there, everything else follows.

    1. I am disappointed this spiritual advice contains no reminder that you like your women with a little-something-extra-to-hold-onto, Fantomas.

  6. this article would be more helpful if it clarified the age range. 30s? 40s? but then, by talking about a ‘generation’ as a homogeneous thing it loses me anyway. not everyone is helen razer – why not let a ‘generation’ have its richness and individual flavours?

    1. The generally agreed age range for Generation x falls between the years 1960 and 1980. This is broadly reported.
      As for not making any claims about any era or the people within it. Well. I’m afraid most of us would stop writing. As this is unlikely to happen and there will continue to be broad observations published about the new tendencies of particular generations, I would suggest you stop reading in an effort to avoid the scourge of having individual richness diminished.

  7. “How do we keep the desire for externally provided “self-esteem” from being naturalised.”

    Indeed.

    “For people of my age-range to write, as they so often do, about the susceptibility of the young to attention presupposes their own immunity to it.”

    As one of the elders of the Gen X tribe, I have to agree. Sandwiched between the appalling boomers and their even more appalling offspring, it’s a precarious position and I’m not sure that a lot of our generation have made the leap to self-respect. My only concern with the internet sharing phenomenon is how it might delay people from reaching the exalted state of self respect. On the other hand, we don’t seem to be doing any better than the boomers, and only better than the gen y crowd by their compulsion to vacate that space.

    But before the internet there were all sorts of other excuses for not arriving as a full fledged, self respecting human being, and quite frankly, Gen X should have arrived at the point before the internet really got going, at least for the older component.

    So it’s hard to blame the internet for anything really. But it does allow the preening self esteem group an outlet for their vacuity.

    1. I didn’t really blame the internet for anything, to be clear. My view on media is that they are the expression of the social and economic conditions of the time and not the other way around. I am a pretty boring Marxist in this sense. And I think that it is in the essay Society of Control by Giles Deleuze where we see a good explanation of how technology simply accelerates or enables the open expression of habits that already exist.
      If the internet had happened in a different history and one in which we were not absolutely comfortable with the idea of our selves being the most important thing and a thing that needed to be fed by the approval of others, then it wouldn’t be full of emotional selfies and their written equivalent.
      It’s not the internet. It’s not the medium. I had hoped that I made this clear.

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