By Noah Boonov
When I was a little kid, it was hammered into my head that under any circumstances “Do not talk to strangers online” and “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet”. I will never forget watching ‘The North American House Hippo’ commercial (I choose to believe that they ARE real). These phrases and advertisements were targeted towards young people like me; to learn about the dangers of media, as well as the World Wide Web.
I grew up in a home with a family computer and was born at a time where dial-up internet was still used. When I was little, we had a monitor and a computer that were separate. I sat for hours playing games on Barbie and Polly Pocket websites, enthralled with the wonders of the online world. After months of begging, my parents finally let me have a Facebook account at 11 years of age. They made sure to set it up the account so they could monitor it. I didn’t have a smartphone which meant I could only access Facebook on our shared computer.
A year later, I got a Twitter account. Once I got an iPod Touch, I signed myself up for Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, and Vine accounts. These were my very first social media apps specifically designed for smartphones and touchscreen devices. By the time I was 13, my parents weren’t monitoring my internet habits like they used to. I had to start navigating it on my own. Despite all the rhetoric I’d learned about internet safety, I ended up talking to strangers online.
Before Elon Musk’s wrath on Twitter, it was a place where people came together to speak openly about their passions and frustrations. I felt isolated from those who shared these loves, and I was desperate to find those who would talk to me without judgement. Through Twitter, I was able to find a community of young people who were just like me. I started talking to people who loved the same musicians, bands, youtubers, musicals, and television shows. We would stay up late talking to each other about EVERYTHING. The more we all got to know each other, the safer we felt to take our friendships to the next level.
For almost three years, my online friends and I would stay up into the wee hours of the morning on video calls. I had friends around the world, all about my age, all feeling the same things I was. My parents noticed how much time I spent on the computer or iPod. They were terrified but could tell these people meant a lot to me. Eventually, my parents started to get to know some of them. Soon they felt comfortable enough to let one of my internet friends come to visit me in Ottawa. I ended up visiting them in Vancouver a year later. For Hannukah one year, my parents flew me down to San Antonio, Texas to meet a long-time friend for the first time. As time went on, I began spending less and less time on these apps and focusing on my real life. Some of the friendships I made stuck, others faded due to growing up. Each one meant so much to me.
I know; a lot of this sounds scary and dangerous. The thing that played in the back of my mind constantly was something my parents taught me too; “Trust your gut”. I knew that putting myself out there like that was vulnerable and I could make myself a target. I made sure to stop talking to someone when I felt uncomfortable or pressured. I took charge of a situation when I felt it was getting out of hand. I set boundaries about what topics I did and did not feel comfortable sharing with those individuals. This made a world of a difference to the ways I connected with those friends, compared to some in my real life. I am still in contact with some of the online friends I made. I’ve visited a few of them who live in Toronto. In 2019, a long-time internet friend from Massachusetts came to see Elton John with my whole family and my mom constantly asks when she’s coming back.
Did I get in trouble for the ways I used social media when I was younger? Absolutely. It’s part of growing up, and I don’t think we should avoid it. As I grew older, I was able to trust myself and my intuition. My parents gave me the tools and the vocabulary to make decisions about my safety. When I pursued relationships with people in digital spaces, whether they’ve been romantic or platonic, I have been able to put my well-being first. We need to change the conversation around social media safety and remove the shame and stigma around talking to people online. We should be encouraging those we love to listen to their intuition when interacting with others, both in your real life and online. Too many restrictions may have a negative impact on building trust with them. Who knows the kind of connections we can make when opening ourselves to the online world, whilst taking care of ourselves in those spaces.