The late media critic Neil Postman famously observed that the rise of broadcast media meant the end of childhood. His point was that childhood as a period of relative innocence is a socially constructed phenomenon, and is possible only when the adult world conspires to create a more or less impermeable bubble of innocence around the young, to allow their consciences to develop before having to deal with the harsh realities of adult life. A print culture allows adults to have discourse about things that aren’t fit for young ears, Postman argued, but when all the “secrets” of the adult world are available to the young simply by turning on cable television, childhood collapses.

Postman wrote that before the advent of the Internet, which of course greatly exacerbates this dynamic and this problem. When I was a 13 year old boy, I recall that me and my friends were dying to get our hands on a Playboy or a Penthouse. But if nobody’s father or older brother had any copies hidden under the bed, we were out of luck. As we almost always were. When I turned 14, our family got a giant satellite dish (this was 1981; remember how big they were then?), and I discovered that the Playboy Channel was broadcasting on Satcom 5, way on the other side of the night sky. I would sit up till 1 in the morning, to make sure mom and dad were asleep, then move the dish over to Satcom 5 to watch the soft porn channel with the volume turned all the way down. And then they scrambled the dang signal, ruining my life. Oh, the humanity.
The point is, my folks were not prepared for the way technology opened up an avenue for my own (self-induced) corruption. Nor were they as aware as they ought to have been of the lengths to which a 14 year old American male, even one raised in a morally conservative home, will go to look at naked women. Now that I’m a father, I think a lot about the kinds of things — and temptations — my kids will confront in their teenage years that I was protected from because the technology didn’t exist back then. I’m pretty sure that if I had had access to Internet pornography sites back then, I would have looked at them. It’s the nature of the 14 year old male beast. My wife and I have talked about this sort of thing at length, and I learn a lot from her experience as a teenager. I know that the male-female difference has something to do with it, but I really do think that if I had had the theological training she did, and more importantly, if I had been embedded in a peer group, and in a social setting, that took an actively dim view of pornography, I might have had the character to turn away from it when it presented itself to me. By the time I got to college, I had started to develop a real aversion to it as something foul, and I’ve never had the slightest interest in it since then. My challenge as a father is to help my children — especially my boys — navigate their way through the world of their emerging sexuality at a time when there are so many ways for them to pervert it.
But it’s not simply a matter of helping kids mature sexually in healthy ways. What about grown-ups? I have a couple of friends who struggle heroically to conquer porn addiction, such that it affects the way they regard the computer in their own homes (sort of like an alcoholic who has to live with a liquor cabinet). Pornography has become so ubiquitous in our culture that, it seems, younger generations are losing their sensitivity to it. It’s becoming normalized, and with it, a mechanistic attitude toward sex and sexuality that I find utterly dehumanizing. There’s no point in arguing whether we should or shouldn’t have the Internet, because many people misuse it for pornographic reasons. The Internet is a fact — which leaves the rest of us to contemplate how technology is increasing our power to act on our beastly instincts, and what that means for social evolution.
Which brings us to the broader questions raised by Grindr, the iPhone app that allows gay men who want to have anonymous sex with strangers to find sexually willing partners within near geographic proximity. Here’s a Daily Beast writer on his experience with Grindr (follow the jump for an excerpt):

In every location possible I would lower the crab pot to see how many I could catch. The app takes a classic urban pastime–people watching–and makes it digital, not to mention completely addictive. It’s impossible to resist the urge to constantly pull it out and look at who’s in your immediate area, even if you’re not looking for a hookup. In fact, many of the guys I talked to were in no position to hook up at all. I can’t count how many times I asked a guy on Grindr, “Where are you?” only to receive the reply, “I’m at work,” or worse, “I’m driving.” Los Angeles has a no-texting-while-driving law; still, I couldn’t fight the temptation to find out how many other gays were stuck in traffic on the 101 with me.
When driving through Inglewood, the men on my Grindr list suddenly turn Latino. If I’m in Koreatown, they’re mostly Asian. And if I’m in Beverly Hills they’re all old. “You’d be surprised” adds Joel, “as to how each of these demographics have formed their own Grindr subcultures or their own community way of using the app.” Grinding through rush hour became my daily ritual until I got a message from someone that said: “Driving while grinding is dangerous and sexy.” After another impromptu Carol Kane impersonation as I frantically searched cars to spot the mystery traffic Grindr-er, I realized it was time to cut back.
Similarly, I was walking home the other evening when I got a message from the young man across the street. It said, “I’m ditching the Grindr app. It’s too easy. If you’d ever like to see me again you know where to find me.” I looked over at his building, wondering if he was waiting for me.

Read the whole thing. The writer comes off as monstrous, I must say, because he is so nonchalant about all this. I mean, it would be ugly if he were doing this, but what’s shocking to me is that he takes this kind of life as if it were as normal as breathing. Like I said, dehumanizing.
No doubt there will be a heterosexual version of Grindr out soon (the website already exists to connect married people who want to have an extramarital fling), and straights who want to find out who’s sexually available can arrange impromptu hook-ups with little fuss. My guess is that most people, after a certain age, will find this sort of thing gross. But let’s say there were a Grindr-type app for heteros (or, for that matter, if gay teens put Grindr on their iPhones): does anybody doubt that teenage boys would think of this thing as the greatest thing since the invention of cars? Seriously, it would dramatically lower the barriers to entry into the world of active sexuality, because the jumpy teenager wouldn’t have to work up the nerve to talk to potential partners to find out if they are even available.

My focus on this is primarily from the point of view of a parent who will have a teenage son in less than three years. But really, there are much broader questions about society and culture present here. The technology is not going away, and is in fact bound to spread. That puts parents like me in the position of working that much harder to instill a strong sense of moral right and wrong, of moral purpose, and of moral responsibility, into our kids so that they have the internal backbone to resist this sort of soul-killing thing. And really, it increases the urgency for us to find each other and build the kind of social groups that our kids can grow up in, so they can absorb a healthy moral sense. As I see it, there is no such thing as neutrality today. You’ve got to be consciously and intelligently countercultural in raising your kids.
That said, when somebody comes up with a Grindr-app that helps crunchy cons find each other in a crowd, I’m in!
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