Were We Really More Innocent Before the Internet?

A vintage black and white photo of some children in front of a house. One is riding a tricycle, and the others are posing and smiling.
Photo by Boston Public Library.

I saved had this article, Innocence Lost: What Did You Do Before The Internet?, as something I would like to write about, well, apparently it was published in August 2019, so almost a year ago? Wow.

I keep skipping it because I still don't quite know how to formulate my thoughts on this whole notion that there was a magical "more innocent" (and thus "better") time without the internet.

On one hand, yes, of course: the internet makes the darkest, worst parts of humanity available to be stumbled upon by accident, let alone sought out. It turns our comparison machine up to eleven. It uses us and monetizes our attention. We now have to intentionally choose to rest (really rest, not just distract ourselves) or be alone with our thoughts, which means that happens far less often.

On the other hand, let's not get ridiculous. Childhood is still full of play, silliness, and joy. Kids still experience the world with innocence and wonder. Folks who are now adults that grew up with the internet are truly fine: they are smart, interesting, and caring (unless they aren't, but the internet didn't invent dumb, boring jerks in every generation).

Plus, the benefits of the internet:

We can stay connected to loved ones, get an education, find quality entertainment, and create our own opportunities. Can you imagine the pandemic without the internet? It would have been worse on all counts: isolation, boredom, and the ability to work from home.

So I don't know. Like every new thing, it seems to be more about how you use it than the thing itself. I guess the thing with the internet is that there is no limit to the bad side. When you misuse it (or it misuses you), the damage can be infinitely terrible. But is there also infinite possibility to the benefits?

To answer the question of the article, here's what I did before the internet (and yes, I realize the internet technically existed through some of this, but it wasn't actually present in my life until the late '90s):

- Went to school.

- Wrote notes on paper, folded them up into shapes we all thought were somehow impenetrable to adult hands, and passed them to my friends.

- Did research assignments in the library or using our Encyclopedia Britannica set. (At some point, we had a CD ROM encyclopedia, which was exciting, but I didn't like it as much as the books.)

- Hung out with my neighbour friends. We played games, played with Barbies, read comics, and watched TV.

- Took ballet classes and made up dances in our living room.

- Dubbed music off the radio onto blank tapes.

- Played Super Mario Brothers.

- Maintained a strict schedule with my siblings of the order we got to pick TV shows to watch after school.

- Got bored sometimes (especially when there was nothing good on TV).

- Read books.

- Ate truly wild amounts of sugar.

Some of these things I still do. Some have been outsourced or crowded out by newer technologies. Others, well, I am not 12 anymore, so I don't need to negotiate with my siblings over who gets to pick what we watch.

The question is: was I really more innocent than kids today? Even if I was, is that actually better? What is the value of innocence in the first place? There is a sweetness to experiencing life without knowing about the darker sides, but is that really better for humanity? Or is it just different? In other times and parts of the world, preserved innocence for children has been constrained to much shorter times. Is that worse or just different?

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