The memory of my introduction to computers and the internet is hazy, and I assume that is because there was no single “a-ha” or “here-it-is” moment, but instead it happened gradually and over time, became a natural part of my every day routine. One of my earliest memories of a computer is watching over my father’s shoulder as he worked slowly on an unwieldy, cream-colored Gateway desktop, and feeling very impatient because every time he turned it on it meant I couldn’t call my friends from school on the home phone line for a while. My parents didn’t allow me to watch television unless it was Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I couldn’t play video games, period. So thinking back on it, I’m really not that surprised that I also wasn’t allowed to use the house desktop unless I wanted to play a parent-approved game like digital chess. The first time I was allowed to use a computer sans parental supervision was in 4th grade when I received access to the school lab. For an hour a day, I would go to the lab with a few friends where I had the choice to either play The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis or to use a typing program.
It wasn’t until middle school that I realized there was more to the internet than educational platforms, and that I began bargaining with my parents for more personal time on the home computer. We reached an agreement of 30 minutes of “computer time” a day. I quickly made myself an AOL instant messenger username and would cherish those few minutes every afternoon, changing the hearts and quotes in my “away message.” And although I can hardly remember what we all talked about, I do remember thinking how amazing it was, that I could sit just a few feet from my parents and carry conversations on which they could not eavesdrop. The computer suddenly became the primary source of my independent development – I was able to share my opinions and mature my sense of humor without omnipresent parental supervision, and was allowed to make social gaffes in an online setting where things were forgotten easily and new news was produced constantly. At that time, I had no concept of internet security and rarely thought about who owned my accounts or monitored my expression. I did, however, make several email addresses under pseudonyms so that I could have multiple accounts on Neopets and repeatedly sign up for Limited Too discounts.
Like most American teenagers, I was eventually introduced to MySpace and then Facebook, where I experimented with photo and status sharing and eagerly awaited the approval of my friends and acquaintances. The internet became the center of my social existence and a means of measuring my social experiences against those of my classmates. I soon discovered the harsh realities inherent in such a system when in 8th grade, I discovered that many of my “best friends” were hanging out and snapping pictures at events I hadn’t been invited to. I couldn’t decide if I was mostly lucky to find out that they were bad friends, or disturbed by the public discovery I’d been left out.
Today I am very literally always online. Facebook still houses all my photographs and Google Calendar has entirely replaced the planners I used to carry around school. And just as it was in 8th grade, I find myself measuring my interactions and social value through mediums like Instagram, iMessage, and Google Chat. And although I now hear plenty about the risks of oversharing data online, I see no social or practical alternative to taking my life offline. Ironically, I now find that I have to police myself much in the same way my parents once did. Not only do I think twice about the things I post, but I limit the amount of time I spend on apps or mindlessly chatting with friends. I try to disconnect at random times by turning off my phone or turning off the WiFi while in class. My main complaint about the internet is its rampant material culture and the manicured nature of it all – after scrolling through someone’s vacation photos or reading 5 statuses about classmates who got into Harvard Law School or enjoyed their summer at Goldman Sachs, I often find myself feeling sh*tty and ungrateful despite many of my own accomplishments. So what started out as a platform for the development of my personality and self-confidence has slowly become a double-edged sword.