Columnists > Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Electronic delusion

Technology | Teenagers who spend too much time online never really learn about themselves

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

On his blog, Dublin-based Leo Traynor describes himself as a “writer, crossword compiler, political consultant and facilitator.” That’s not a combination to attract random hatred, but his post titled “Meeting a Troll,” reprinted last month in The Guardian and other British papers, detailed how Traynor’s Twitter account became a sludge pile of abusive tweets—and worse.

Beginning in 2009, he received, blocked, and reported “followers” who bombarded him with anti-Semitic comments too foul to repeat. When his wife innocently revealed their relationship on her own Twitter account, she received the same treatment. Efforts to dismiss it as the activity of a few deluded nut-cases failed last summer, when Traynor received a package at his home address. Opening it, he found a container of ashes with a note: “Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz.” Death threats followed, made more chilling by the obvious fact that his tormenter knew where he lived.

The police said they could do nothing, but a friend—an IT expert—offered to track the troll using legal but little-known technology. The process pinpointed three IP addresses in Ireland, two of them public wifi locations. The third was the home of a friend, and the troll had to be that friend’s 17-year-old son.

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“I was gobsmacked,” writes Traynor. He called his friend with the shocking discovery, and together they cooked up a plan. The story ends well: Traynor met the perpetrator and his parents at a restaurant, where the kid, once confronted with the real-world consequences of his deeds, burst into tears and confessed. When asked why, he sobbed, “I don’t know. I’m sorry. It was like a game thing.”

The tale has received a lot of internet play, with other bloggers recalling their own experiences with strangers who post vile, personal comments. Culprits, asked why, were sometimes startled and apologetic: “I didn’t think you’d actually read it. Please forgive me.” In most cases, more abuse. It’s happened to me a couple of times: my stated opinion swollen and disfigured in someone’s mind, myself recast as a stain on humanity. What causes this? Overheated politics? Not enough fresh air?

Narcissism, some experts say. I’m not so sure. Narcissism, or self-centeredness, is an oversized view of one’s own importance. But kids who send ashes and death threats, and political junkies who imagine their opponents as demons in disguise, may have gone beyond self-centeredness. They may have no real sense of themselves at all.

Adolescence is a time of self-questioning and self-testing, looking outside your immediate sphere for clues about the person you really are. Teens shape their identity the same way babies learn to talk and preschoolers learn proper behavior: They interact with others and respond to feedback, both positive and negative. They encounter their limits.

That’s still true for most kids, but I hear rumors of a subset whose clues are mediated almost entirely through electronics. Online, they find only what they’re looking for and reinforce it daily. The father of Traynor’s troll described his son as tech-dependent, always updating or tweeting, drawn to fantasy and conspiracy websites. If one real-world friend said, “Uh … not cool, dude” (or the Irish equivalent), Traynor might have been spared some grief.

Interaction reveals us, to ourselves most of all. This is never clearer than in the Psalms of Lament, where the writer remonstrates with God. In Psalm 71, for example, almost every line includes a personal pronoun—“I take refuge,” “I have leaned,” “Forsake me not.” What could be more “narcissistic” than imagining the Creator of the universe as interested in me, even to taking me “from my mother’s womb”?

If such a thing can be, this is holy narcissism. The psalmist is centering in God, clashing with God, crying out to God, seeking feedback from God. His self is rock-solid, because it’s grounded on a rock. For all his troubles, he’ll be OK.

For those who lose themselves in the limitless affirmation of cyberspace, I’m not so sure.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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