Ahh, the internet… according to Beloit College’s most recent “mindset study” of the class of 2016 (AKA the students I work with on a daily basis) they “have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of ‘electronic narcotics’”. They’ve always been able to visit a website, purchase their new pair of Air Jordans (do kids still wear those?) and have them safely delivered to their door in four to seven business days—because, heaven forbid, we be seen in public purchasing them from an actual store. Information is available at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger if they’re on a smart phone. They can quickly learn how to sheer an alpaca or look up Jay Bruce’s number of home runs this season (27) in less than 30 seconds. Gone are the days when parents would yell “Look it up in those Funk and Wagnall’s in the den!” to a child crying their way through a social studies report. And yes, before you ask, I was that kid; my parents received a complete set Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedias as a wedding gift in 1982, and I remember several reports through which I cried because I didn’t know the answers. In short, these kids have never known a time without the internet. The internet puts a veritable bounty of information within a second’s reach of the user—good or bad. We’ve all seen the TV specials chronicling the internet-addicted child through a camp for their dependence on online gaming (it’s a real camp in Korea, look it up) or seen the CNN ticker report “shocking numbers” of children addicted to the internet. We often hear news stories of children being cyber-bullied or of them visiting websites that promote unhealthy lifestyles. But that is only one side of the story.
Not often does the media report what good the internet can do for not only our children, but for us as well. When I first started to recognize that I may have an eating disorder and self-harm issues, my first trip wasn’t to a doctor, to the library to read up on it or to the school nurse. No, my first trip was to the National Eating Disorder Association website. I knew that a quick trip around the NEDA website was a way to remain anonymous and get the information I needed about getting help without anyone labeling or judging me. For me, someone who lives in constant anxiety of being judged, the ability to get the CORRECT information I needed through the anonymity of the internet was what helped me get started on my recovery process. I was a lot less ashamed to click through informational slides on the NEDA website than I would have been had I gone up to the school librarian asking for assistance in locating the ED books or to the school nurse asking for more information about a disease that I wasn’t even sure I had. That being said, we cannot depend solely on the internet for accurate information about, in specific, EDs due to the prevalence of pro-ED websites. We must be savvy internet “consumers”, taking the time to determine if the information with which we are being presented is 1) medically accurate and 2) factually correct. We must not let the opinions of others serve as fact. Parents and educators must help instruct children to do the same. It is often difficult to sort fact from opinion, but, for medical information, I tend to find websites with .org or .gov more factually correct than others…and less factually correct than information from a person with MD after their name. And, whatever you do, please don’t diagnose yourself on WebMD despite the presence of the initials MD.
The internet is a wonderful way to reach out to those in similar situations to get the support and assistance you need. Almost a year ago, I stumbled upon an amazing mental health blog that lead to me a mentor whom I now consider a close friend. Although we are located in approximately the same area, went to the same undergrad institution (missing each other by a mere three months) and have a lot of common acquaintances, I know that without the internet, we would never have crossed each other’s paths. After reading her blog last November, I sent an email to her and we haven’t stopped talking since. She supports me when I struggle, she shares in my successes and she means the world to me. She is the first person in all my 24 years who has understood the role ED has played on my everyday life. Have I mentioned that we’ve never met? Yes, one of the benefits and drawbacks to the internet. I have an amazing supportive friend who completely gets me, yet I have never actually talked to her. This is not to downplay the significance that my best friend has played in my life, but, while she supports me 100% and tells me when I am engaging in unhealthy behaviors, it is hard for her to relate to what I am going through. This is where I turn to my friend on the internet. I feel as though the internet brings people with unique circumstances together. It is a support group, an online family, a place to connect with those who have the ability to assist you, and a place to meet people like you—even if you never actually meet them. I’m not advocating ditching flesh and blood friends for internet friends, only suggesting supplementing those relationships with internet pen pals. If you are lucky enough, like me, to find someone with whom a friendship blossoms, great. But don’t become an internet hermit, shunning human contact for the glow and hum of a computer or you’ll end up in that internet camp in South Korea.
So, to sum up, despite not being programmed to understand the vast complexity of the internet in the same way that the class of 2016 does, I have managed to find ways to make it work for me. I am not addicted to internet, and, in fact, have been known to go days at a time without it. I just want people to know that the internet isn’t this Pandora’s Box of evils that we should be afraid to release to our children; because, if you remember the tale of Pandora’s Box, even after all the evil was released…hope remained. It is my wish that people would wait for that hope, as well as understand the way the culture of our children has shifted to rely a little heavier on the internet.