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Digital technology and the pornography of narcissism

The farther digital technology seems to take us forward, the faster it takes us back to the cave.

Facebook photos and Pinterest boards are daubs on the cave wall. The typical batch of Facebook photos are crude ceremonial assertions of a person's tribe and the ritual of debauched gatherings. Look: me with my posse getting wasted/celebrating mom's birthday/spouse's promotion.

What is Pinterest, with its emphasis on pride in people's stuff and the lust after stuff they want, but a perfect expression of a contemporary hunter-gatherer culture?

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If not back to the cave, then at least back to a more primitive existence. Recently, I read an astute observation that Facebook has replaced the church as a recorder of important events in people's lives. Births, engagements, marriages, all the benchmark incidents of existence, once dutifully part of church records, are now noted mainly on Facebook. In the future, it will seem that we went backward. What is a Tweet but a grunt compared with the expansive writing of letters, notes, pamphlets of point of view expounding on issues?

We think that technology improves us and our lives. We forget that every apparent step forward can, in truth, be a walk back. We rarely remember that history repeats itself.

Which brings us to pornography. After every advance in communication technology comes pornography. This pattern is repeated. As soon as cavemen drew, they drew about sex. As soon as the printing press made the mass production of books possible, it made mass porn possible. What was submerged, hidden or in the shadows suddenly emerges into the light. Crudeness comes back.

Sext up KIDS (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is an alarmist new documentary about teen and tweens "trying to navigate their way through an X-rated culture." Much of it is about the sexualization of young girls and teenagers.

There is much talk of our "hypersexualized society" and we see the predictable examples of that society exemplified. Young girls going to school dressed in a highly sexualized way. In the doc, teenage girls talk about the terrible things other girls and boys say to them.

We're told that boys expect porn-star looks and attitude from girls because, well, boys have 24/7 access to pornography. We're told that 70 to 80 per cent of teenage boys watch online porn regularly: "The Internet makes porn affordable, accessible and anonymous and just so easy for boys to find their favourite sites." Thus, young boys acquire a distorted idea of sex. And girls know what the boys watch and want. Young girls are under pressure to deliver porn-star performances in relationships.

"Computer-mediated communication tends to accelerate intimacy," an expert says. The same expert asserts that young girls who text the most are also the most likely to experiment sexually. Now there's a statistic to terrify parents. And then there's the revelation that the number of teenage girls who send nude or semi-nude photos of themselves to a crush is staggering.

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We hear about what results sometimes: Kids who have shared sexy pictures of other kids under the age of 18 have been charged with possession of child pornography.

Sext up KIDS, made by Maureen Palmer of Bountiful Films, sets out to expose how growing up in a hypersexualized culture "hurts our kids." It suggests that, but doesn't really prove it. It's a fascinating but muddled documentary. On the one hand, it points to mainstream media and pop culture as a source for the sexualization of youth. On the other hand, it seems to suggest that the kids are okay, that for all the barrage of blatant messages and the successful selling of porn imagery to kids, most kids can figure out how to cope and navigate this world that is so alien to their parents. In the end, it suggests that boys and girls still want romance, affection and companionship.

What it fails to suggest is that the Internet and digital telecommunications – the source of so much angst in the doc – return us to tribalism and the coarse narcissism of self-regard. Kids are obsessed with photos of themselves online. Adults create ever-smaller tribal groups online and create altars to themselves. LinkedIn profiles. Pinterest boards.

For all the porn that can be found so easily now by kids and adults, digital technology creates its own pornography of narcissism. Hence the ease with which the old patterns of growth, maturity and aging are undermined, for all age groups.

Yes, as the doc proposes, things are screwed up. We grow cruder, not wiser and better from the connection-saturation culture of the digital world. Adults go back to the cave, and take the kids with them.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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