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Television Review

Frontline tackles Internet-driven generation gap

Teenagers in Morristown, N.J., get together for a gaming party in the Frontline documentary 'Growing Up Online,' which takes a parental view of the Internet. Teenagers in Morristown, N.J., get together for a gaming party in the Frontline documentary "Growing Up Online," which takes a parental view of the Internet. (CAITLIN MCNALLY FOR FRONTLINE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / January 22, 2008

"Growing Up Online," the Frontline documentary that airs tonight, starts out sounding alarmist, as well as a few years late. "It's Friday night, and six friends are having a party," a voice-over intones ominously, as teenage boys settle down with their computers to play a first-person-shooter game. "Within minutes, they're locked in battle."

The same gloomy tome is used to describe kids watching YouTube, a boy logging onto MySpace, a group of teens sending text messages. It's the sort of reaction adults probably had when kids first started playing video games, or talking on the phone.

Indeed, "Growing Up Online" takes a parental view, yet it isn't terribly generous to the parents. Yes, many grown-ups are unaware of their children's online doings. But according to Frontline, adults are also barely capable of understanding all of this technology. "My time is over," one teacher laments, and the voice-over later declares the war lost: "It's been said that the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since the advent of rock 'n' roll."

That's a bold statement, and "Growing Up Online" tries to support it with shock-the-parents fodder, much of it assembled from a single, middle-class suburb in New Jersey. There's the seemingly well-adjusted teen who secretly visits websites that encourage anorexia; the high school kids who film themselves drinking on a bus trip, then post the footage on YouTube.

And there are ample interviews with kids who are blasé about their online exhibitionism. At one point, several of them recount a fight in the school cafeteria, recorded on cellphones, and posted online.

"It was pretty good video," one teenage boy muses.

"It kind of made us famous," says one of the girls.

No, they aren't role models for American youth. But Frontline is hard-pressed to tell us how they're different from teenagers since time immemorial: rash, irresponsible, sometimes-belligerent, and excessively proud of their shiny new toys. (One boy boasts of a website called sparknotes.com, which provides condensed versions of the classics. Guess what? The guides are available on paper, too. And we had paper CliffsNotes way back when I was a high school kid.)

Even the most chilling story Frontline presents isn't merely an Internet cautionary tale. Yes, a boy who was bullied, both in person and online, wound up taking his life after researching suicide on the Web. But there's nothing new, alas, about teen suicide or bullying. Teenagers have always had a broad capacity for cruelty; there's a body of film and literature to prove it.

In its most useful moments, "Growing Up Online" tries to parse the differences between then and now, and actually does a fair amount of debunking: Despite widespread fears of sexual predators, we're told, most online sex solicitations come from teens themselves, and are routinely ignored. The film also shows us a few scattered examples of parents and teenagers bridging the gap. When one Goth girl starts posting provocative pictures online under a pseudonym, her white-bread parents flip out at first. But they eventually come to see her Web doings as a benign form of escapism. The relationship is saved.

That's a far more provocative, nuanced way to look at the Internet, and it rings more true: The chief trouble with the cyberspace is that the rules and safeguards have yet to be sorted out. Yes, the Web can amplify social behavior, good and bad, but teens are hardly the only antagonists or victims. And even Frontline has to know this, in the end.

"The computer has become a new weapon in the arsenal of adolescence," the voice-over says at one point. It's a true statement, but it leaves out the rub: Adolescence is the far more dangerous part.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

Growing Up Online

On: Channel 2

Time: Tonight at 9

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