I had just whipped out my smartphone and settled a question about my 11-year-old son's homework in record time. Impressed, he shook his head. How on earth did I manage to make it through high school without the Internet? "I feel sorry for you, Mom."
True — kids today can get to information much faster. But my generation's path was easier because it was more direct: topic => library => card catalog => books => voilà. Information was physically confined by front and back covers, neatly indexed.
Not only does their information world swirl at turbo speed, but it's exponentially broader than ours ever was. That makes the picture much harder to read. Whereas even the thickest books eventually ended, a Web hunt can last forever. Kids must play detective, scrutinizing sources and sniffing out ideological biases, leaps of logic and just plain mischief. Is this source lying? Uninformed? A corporate stooge or hack? Kids have to be librarian and editor, curator and jury.
And for children trying to navigate an increasingly global moral universe, growing up in the Internet age is especially daunting. Take Kony 2012, the nonprofit Invisible Children's controversial and wildly successful documentary-style social media campaign. The campaign has commanded children all over the world to participate in the Cover the Night event on April 20, in which they "step away from their computers and into the streets" to show the world that they are serious about bringing to justice a Ugandan warlord who preys on children.
More than 100 million people watched the initial Kony 2012 video in a week, making it the most viral video in history. Then the grown-up backlash began. Out came "facts" about the nonprofit's finances; truth-squadding from actual Ugandans; worries about a "white savior" complex; and, most fatally, the group's narrator and co-founder Jason Russell's very public psychotic breakdown. Credible evidence emerged that Russell was cursed by Ugandan voodoo "magic." (Hey, one of my great-great-grandmothers was said to be an obeah woman; I've no reason to doubt it.)
Invisible Children's follow-up video, which has been viewed "just" 1.6 million times, has been declared a failure. It's over. Keep it moving, folks. Nothing to see here!
Not so fast. Like all effective propaganda, the Kony 2012 campaign wasn't about facts. It was a direct emotional appeal in which children spoke to other children about how to save other children. Simple, direct orders were repeated over and over again. An arbitrary deadline was imposed on when the bogeyman would be captured. It was a choose-your-own-adventure story. And kids would decide how it would end and what would happen to the bad guy.
Part of me finds Invisible Children's motivations earnest and the dream of knitting a global community of children against oppression very, very seductive. But given the track record of messianic figures leading the rainbow throngs to God's light, to be honest, this kind of power terrifies me.
But this is the world they will inherit. Whether it's buying new sneakers, trying a new religion or overthrowing governments, people will try to get them to do stuff. So they need to be prepared.
So I watched the video with my two children. I talked them through how to do a simple Google search about the video's creator and the organization behind it before they raided their piggy banks. "As we say in journalism, 'If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out!' " I told them.
We talked about what an independent source was and why that makes a difference. Why you should judge information differently if it comes from a company selling you something and not from a government, university or trusted, independent media source. We found that some of the most effective debunking of the Kony 2012 campaign came from nonmainstream independent sources that, in turn, named their sources, which we kept checking out. On and on — in an endless loop. It was exhausting and confusing. At the end of the afternoon, none of us really knew what to think.
Several weeks later, I wanted to see if my children remembered the video and especially the April 20 day of action. My 8-year-old daughter had forgotten the exact date (she guessed May 24), but just remembering the video evoked a lot of emotions.
"Why, Kony?!" she said. "You take people's kids and make them murder their families. We will never stop remembering you until you go to jail. I hope you hear us, Kony, because it is not OK what you are doing to these kids."
Did she remember anything about the video's narrator? No, but she did remember the little kid whose dad was teaching him about Kony. And she remembered the name Jacob, the Ugandan boy who was crying because he lost his brother to Kony's army.
"He made this video for more people to be inspired to try to give money to hunt this guy down," she said. "Well, not hunt, but to try to get this guy, and at least go to jail. If you get this bracelet, people can see it and they will want to see the video. All you have to do is tell them about the video, and that will help them."
She started to ask me why Kony targeted kids. Before I could attempt an answer, she came up with her own.
"Oh. He wants more power, and kids are the only way," she said.
Indeed. A lot of people seem to be realizing that these days.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.