There have been many books out recently on the dangers that young people face when they go online, and Totally Wired is one of the most readable of them. Author Anastasia Goodstein (editor of YPulse) is in her thirties, and grew up in a time when there were no cell phones or Instant Message programs. She says a little about the trouble she got into as a teen, and compares that with the sorts of temptations and pitfalls that teens today can fall prey to. She backs up her summary of the current situation with results of some rather unscientific online surveys she conducted. It's a relatively simple book, setting out basic information about blogs, social-networking sites, cyber-bullying, and cell phones. It ends with two more positive chapters, one on the use of new technology in classrooms, and the other on the ways that today's young people use the Internet to change the world for the better. The discussion is more qualitative than quantitative, and gives the impression of a transformed generation of totally wired teens. A pleasing aspect of the book is it's reluctance to engage in alarmism: although Goodstein acknowledges that there are potential problems in using the Internet, she does not insist that all teens and preteens who use the Internet are potential victims of predators. Instead, she points out that most teens know how to cope with unwanted emails and instant messages, and just block them. Her emphasis on the common sense and resilience of young people is refreshing.
Goodstein does acknowledge that there are dangers associated with the Internet, but she doesn't pretend to have a scheme for parents to completely protect their children from these dangers. Rather, she surveys some of the different ways that parents and websites use to stop young people being targeted and harmed, and points out the strengths and weaknesses she sees in them. Her main theme is that parents should keep a dialog going with their children and try to find a balance between on the one hand showing interest and concern about their children's Internet lives and on the other hand being intrusive and judgmental. She points out that in some cases, parents are part of the problem. For example, some gay and lesbian teens who write about their sexual lives in social networking sites like MySpace or in other blogs, and have then had their identities revealed, have suffered discrimination not just from their peers, but also from their parents. One young woman, whose parents were prominent homophobic conservative activists, was thrown out of her house when newspapers revealed her online writing about her personal life.
While it is true that nearly all young people now use the Internet and cell phones, Goodstein's emphasis on the positive is occasionally a little implausible. She sometimes writes as if this has led to a surge of creativity and self-expression among all teens. Yet when I ask my undergraduate students about their online activities, I'm struck by how many don't have accounts on social networking websites and have never read, let alone contributed to, a blog. It may be the case that many children have to show their parents how to use computers and websites, but I find that many of my students have difficulties working out how to use the Internet in productive ways or even with some relatively simple activities when I require them to use the Internet in their coursework.
Totally Wired is strong in its use of personal anecdotal accounts of the benefits and problems that come with the Internet. There are 17 pages of Notes at the end of the book, documenting sources of information, which make the book more reliable as a source of information, but most of them refer to websites, newspaper and magazine articles, and interviews with individuals. The book doesn't provide much in the way of systematic data about how the Internet is affecting the lives of young people, although it does provide a few leads for those wanting to do more investigation. There is no index, which is a serious flaw. So Goodstein's book will be most useful for parents who know a little about the Internet and want some basic orientation as to what the main issues are concerning their children's online activities, laid out by an author who has interacted with many teens, heard a lot of their stories, and writes well.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.