As the U.S. moves further into an impeachment inquiry and another presidential election, as the world deals with a time of upheaval, there is advice I want to share with people growing up on the internet. I primarily address young Autistics, but what I have to say applies to every teen and young adult growing up and coming of age online. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Autistics’ relationship with the internet. It isn’t the first time I’ve offered suggestions for people who are young or otherwise new to the Autistic community. It is the first time I’ve found a way to explain something it took me a long time to learn, the advice I wish I’d received at the beginning: you need to know that the internet will give you what you want. Not what you need. Not what you should want. The internet will give you what you want. If you want to predict how serious engagement with the internet and social media will affect you, how safe, beneficial, unsafe, or detrimental to you and others it will be, you have to know yourself. If you don’t think you know yourself well enough to be pretty certain of how things will turn out, you aren’t at the right point in your life to spend significant time online.
Almost any kind of information, ideology, narrative, or community a person could ever want exists online. Everything has a Facebook group, a Reddit thread, a forum, a weekly Twitter chat. The internet lives to serve the people who really know how to use it. It will take you where you want to go, to the people you’re looking for, without passing judgement on the value of what you’ve asked it for. It won’t hide something from you that might be bad for you for you. It won’t ask you to stop and think before it fulfills a questionable wish. It won’t caution you that what you’re trying to find may not be conducive to a happy or moral life. It will sense your heart’s desire and act on it even if you would be hard pressed to explain what you want to a good friend, even if you would struggle to articulate it to yourself. The internet is never going to explain the nature of the request you’ve made and sit you down to talk over whether it’s really a good idea. It will just give you what you want.
This isn’t always a bad thing. If what you’re after is connection with like-minded people, you will probably get the personal or professional contacts you need. If you are seeking knowledge and want to learn with an open mind, what you will find will probably exceed your wildest dreams. You can use the internet to make new friends, make money, move your career forward by carving out a reputation in your field and building a personal brand, educate and improve yourself, or work for social change. The possibilities for building a better life or a better world are virtually limitless. If you want good things at the outset, you will have one of the most powerful human achievements of all time on your side. The internet could be the long enough lever and place to stand that lets you move the world.
Unfortunately, it will help you just as much if the things you want are bad, either for you or for others. If what you want is camaraderie at all costs, even if it means harming others or adopting unsavory ideals, you will probably get that. If some part of you would like permission to believe you’re better than other people, you will find a community and an ideology that permits you to dehumanize others. You may find yourself falling into aspie supremacy, religious extremism, misogyny, or the racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia of the alt right. If you want a scapegoat to blame and punish for your problems, the internet will find one for you. Not everyone who follows those paths ends up perpetrating something like the Christchurch shooting, but some people do. Many more fill up with hate and fester, inflicting petty cruelties on others, failing to accomplish their goals because blaming someone else makes it difficult to take responsibility for moving one’s own life forward. Bigots and extremists are always recruiting. The internet will connect you with them if you want what they have to offer. If some corner of your psyche wants to abdicate responsibility for your life more quietly and sink into learned helplessness, the internet will introduce you to people who will validate that impulse and give it permission to grow. Whatever your political and ideological leanings, it will give you lies and conspiracy theories if you want content that supports what you already think more than you want content that is thoughtful and factually accurate.
The fundamental law of the internet is that you reap what you sow. It’s a boost, an enhancer, an amplifier. Whichever way you’re leaning, it will give you a hard shove in that direction. You would be wise to take a hard, honest look at which way you’re leaning before you decide to wade in and spend a significant amount of your spare time online. If you decide to get heavily engaged with the internet and social media at this point in your life, expect it to be a test of your character with real consequences. If some soul-searching reveals that you might fail that test, or that you’re not sure you know yourself well enough to be confident about what will happen, be careful. Consider limiting how much space in your life the internet gets. This may be a good time to hold off on meeting new people or checking out new tags, threads, and forums. It may also be beneficial to ask some friends to keep an eye on you and hold you accountable. Monitor yourself, too. Watch for changes in your mood or behavior. Ask yourself about the accuracy and value of the content you’re consuming, whether and how it adds value to your life, why you’re drawn to it, which of your needs it meets. If something has a bad effect on you, drop it. There is no shortage of other things to try.
Your parents may have discounted the importance of things that happen online. If you’re reading this, you probably know better than that. The internet is just another slice of the real world these days, albeit one where the rules are different, where the logic and norms of the rest of society sometimes break down or get inverted. What happens there has consequences for you and for others. Wading deep into the internet at the wrong point in your life could lead to mistakes you can’t take back or shifts in your character and values that may prove hard to reverse. Be careful. Use good judgement. Ask older people you trust to help and advise you along the way. Most of all, know yourself. Figuring out who you are is one of your most important jobs right now. The answer you get will have consequences for all of us, so do your best to make it a good one.