The World Shrank

This post from one of Ken Camp's lesser known blogs (Edit: that's his son. Ken Camp Sr.posted it on Vox) got me thinking about what happened between his generation and mine that caused this radical shift from being utterly carefree with kids versus wanting to know whom they are with, what they are doing, is there a parent present, and how they are getting back and forth.

Us Gen-Xers are probably one of the last generations that can relate to many of the statements that were in Ken's posting. When I was six, I walked by myself up the street to catch a school bus on an extremely busy road. I frequently stayed out until the street lights came on—and sometimes even later than that. When I was seven, I took a city bus to school—even having to change buses, and I had to cross a very busy street to get to the bus in the morning! This was the late 1970s. Even well into the 1980s, I was riding my bike to and from school, and just about anywhere else in between.

Then something happened. I don't think it was one event, but it was several events that, over time, brought us all closer:

  • Cable TV. Cable TV started back in the 1970s—heck where I lived, that was pretty much your only choice if you wanted to watch TV. But it didn't really start growing much until the 1980s when we started seeing more than 13 channels. CNN. MTV. ESPN. This gave us a different world view than we were getting from our local TV stations, which really didn't even cover our local area. They either covered San Jose-north, or Salinas-south. Santa Cruz was hardly a blip.
  • Bulletin Board Systems. One thing that was starting to become popular in the 1980s were Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). Think dialing a phone number to reach what amounts to a specific web site today, except no fancy graphics. Now, granted, personal computers weren't in every home. Only the rich or someone lucky enough to beg, borrow, or steal one from someone else had a personal computer, let alone a modem. But what BBSes did was provide a connection to a wider area of people within your local calling area. But even BBSes evolved to permit communication beyond local calling areas. Think FidoNet and UUCP.
  • The Internet. Now granted the Internet started much earlier than the 1980s. However, in the early 1990s, a lot of non-academics started discovering and using the Internet. Then, of course, Netscape hit the scene. Then Yahoo. Those two events did more to shrink the world than anything I experienced previously.

Back before all this stuff came about, we were a bit more isolated. You had no idea how many weirdos were out there. And for the most part, the weirdos didn't know either. Much like all of these advancements has brought average people closer together, it has also brought the weirdos closer together, too. Now they congregate just like, say, people who like Pink Floyd might do. And, of course, where the weirdos congregate, they share stories, swap tips, and make the collective group of weirdos much smarter. And that makes them that much more dangerous to our kids.

I would argue that, statistically speaking, things that weirdos might do to your kids is probably not that much higher than it was when, say, my dad was a kid. What has changed, though is that we have heard a constant barrage of these stories for the past 20 years or so. And while I can't say with any certainty what the rationale is, I believe that my parents and my parents parents just didn't know the risks of what they were allowing us to do. Or maybe they did, but they took solace in the though that it couldn't happen to my kids. It probably won't, but everytime it happens somewhere else in the country, you will be sure to find out about it.

The end result of this is now we won't let our kids walk the 1000 feet or so it is between our front door and the school bus stop just up the street, at least by themselves—a walk my parents would have had no problem letting me do when I was my son's age. Nor will we let them go off somewhere and play outside without an adult watching. It's a changed world for sure, or at least our awareness of it has changed since the 1980s. And, as they saying goes, you can never go back.