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My boyhood was scarred by horror on the Internet

KIM ROSEN/The Globe and Mail

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I am one of the unique generation that's been raised by the Internet.

The novelty in this is not that I was old enough to experience the Internet's Wild West days – AOL dialup, IRC chat rooms, text-based role-playing games – for most others alive today (if you are of the nerdier predisposition) may remember that.

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The novelty is that at the age of 11, I was old enough to get involved in the Internet but far too young to make sense of it.

Those were the times before mature-content filters existed and before most adults, my parents included, could grasp the depravity of which the Internet was capable.

I saw gore-porn when I was 11.

Exposure to traumatic scenes at a young age has happened to many millions of unfortunate human beings, not just me. And my trauma wasn't of the more severe variety, moderated as it was by the lack of any tangible, physical dimension. It was merely fleeting pixels on a screen, however viciously arranged. Only one sense was assaulted, four were blissfully ignorant.

Yet it was that sensory incongruence that made the experience novel to humanity and uniquely insidious. Traumatic experiences are supposed to be dramatic and to debilitate you immensely, so I didn't dwell much on my experience. If horror was as easy as the movement of a finger, didn't everybody else know about it? Wasn't it a mundane thing that I was simply too young to understand, like how the bitter taste of coffee could be pleasant? It was something that had merely happened to me in the course of my day, infrequent like the ice-cream truck.

This was one phenomenon of being raised by the Internet – an internalized sense of the banality of evil imparted to me as I sat alone, in comfort, in my bedroom.

I went on to become "that kid," a cliché of a bullying victim: overweight, awkward and ginger. A social alienation hat trick, if you will.

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I looked for escapes. Kids in the past would read books or find an engrossing hobby. I looked to the Internet and for the next six years racked up about 15,000 hours of video-game time. A full-time's job work year is 2,000 hours, for perspective.

I was not alone when I was alone in my room escaping. I was deeply involved in a small clan of fellow gamers, none of whom I'd ever "met," but all of whom I talked to via voice-chat and text for years. I knew the names of their family members, where they lived, what they did, their philosophies on all matters of life.

Most were middle-aged men, extremely abrasive, who talked and acted toward each other in a manner reminiscent of the movie Fight Club. Some people might think these relationships trivial, but I would humbly note that I have never physically met my first love, nor my first mentor.

This was a second phenomenon of being raised by the Internet – all my best friends in my depressed teens were caustic middle-aged men I'd never met.

After those years, I would go on to get in shape, make many excellent friends and heavily abuse drugs and alcohol. Yet I also succeeded in school, travelled extensively and, perhaps most remarkable for my generation, translated a bachelor of arts degree in an abstract social science into a job in my field directly out of university.

Through it all, though, a pervading numbness worked its way into my soul. It progressed like a winter chill and by the time I began going to therapy a few months ago I was thoroughly insulated from nearly all emotion, good and bad.

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Like so many others my age (22), I was diagnosed with some-form-or-another of depression. I had always been wary of "depression" as a diagnosis – it seemed too vague. Yet as I began to look on my experiences in the frame of depression, it made sense. My far-too-early exposure to horror occurred in such a transient, ignoble way that I never saw it for what it was – a significant mental-health event.

Negative experiences, however fleeting, must be given their due, lest we forever distract ourselves from them as they tunnel out the foundations of our self-love.

I still don't know what to make of my long-distance friendships. I'd always taken pride in what I thought was my accelerated mental and emotional maturity. Online, I'd developed a highly confident, assertive alter ego that carried me through many years.

I found, though, that overcoming my depression required an empathic conversation with the "alter" of that ego – the ruthlessly subdued teenager. I'd lost so much of the gentle side of me, which was a liability then, but now is the one I want most.

The experiences I've recounted here are not dramatic, nor particularly special. What makes them interesting, I feel, is that they led to all-too familiar results.

We are in an entirely new paradigm of human existence; one where individual kids alone in their rooms are faced with unfiltered glimpses of the raw totality of human experience.

Many will yet grow into the types of people who have always been around, but what will be different is that society won't have the faintest familiarity with the experiences of their upbringing.

Any discussion of our generation must acknowledge the historically unique circumstance that some of us were, in fact, raised by the Internet.

Alex Stewart lives in Calgary.

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