The Helplessness of a Father in the Internet Age

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A few days ago, an 11-year-old posted a video of herself responding to online critics with a foul-mouthed piece of little girl bravado. She was so profane and mildly amusing that she became, in Gawker's words, a "microcelebrity among Internet tween scenesters."

People posted her name and address to 4chan, a site known for rather extreme pranks (update: and/or ebaumsworld, as a commenter notes -- it's a little murky). Soon, she was being harassed not just online, but in real life. Call girls and pizza deliveries began to show up at their home from the great electronic beyond.

Today, her father got involved. In some room with wall-to-wall carpeting, in some house near a mall, this father tried to protect his daughter from the pain the world can inflict. As she sat crying in the foreground, he kneeled behind her and roared into a webcam at the nameless, faceless forces who had reduced his daughter to tears.

She was scared, and he had to do something.

"This is from her father. You bunch of lying, no-good punks, and I know who it's coming from because I've backtraced it and I know who is emailing and doing it and you'll be reported to the cyber police and state police, so you better not write one more thing or screw with my computer again," he screams. "You'll be arrested. End of conversation. FROM. HER. FATHER. And if you come near my daughter, guess what, consequences will never be the same."

People are mocking his lack of understanding of the Internet ("I've backtraced it"), his invocation of the cyberpolice, etc.
 
But you know, there was a time when these kinds of threats worked, and maybe it was a good thing. Words like that from a dad just might put a scare into some cruel 13-year-olds on a mission to ruin some kid's life for fun. In the old days, dads could handle harassment of their little girls. They'd pick up the phone line and yell at prank callers. They'd show up at schools and tell some kids to back off.

Parents want to protect their children, but a precondition of that is being able to know what or who the threat is. Father and daughter alike are now living inside one of those nightmares where the thing that's out to get you remains perpetually just out of sight and reach.

FROM. HER. FATHER. Those words used to mean something. Mostly it meant, "I'm a full-grown man and I'm willing to use physical force to stop you from hurting my kid, you punk kid." But who is the man in this video going to scare? Everyone knows his threats are empty, that he's bluffing and helpless. And he does, too, which must make it all the more enraging.

What a sad portrait of parenting in this particular technological age. You can just imagine them sitting around an oak dinner table quietly a few minutes after the video and wondering, "What the hell are we going to do?"

Shortly after I posted this article, a friend wrote in to say, roughly, "Where was her father during the time when she had unfettered, unsupervised Internet access?" I stipulate to her lack of adult supervision. But who didn't have some hours to himself as a kid? With computers as ubiquitous as they -- and kids as good at using them as their parents -- policing (i.e. cyberpolicing) children's online activities isn't simple.   

Update 4:20 PM EST: Reader Xclamation makes a terrific point in the comments.

The real shame is that after all of this happened, her parents apparently couldn't summon up the wisdom to help their daughter deal with the aftermath of her actions. Instead, they've apparently taught her that the correct reaction is to further engage and antagonize people.
I get the point that there used to be something protective about a father yelling at the kids who are harassing his child used to be a motivator for those kids to knock off their behavior, but you know what, I'm not convinced that it was ever a good idea for a grown adult to threaten and scream and children. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth."  

And also, on further consideration, and a prod from Twitter user, @quietriot_girl, I've removed the video embed. As she put it, "It's all part of the same voyeurism. Reminds me of Haneke's Cache." Point taken.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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