Fairy tales are stories we tell children for the sake of their self preservation. Hansel and Gretel is a cautionary tale – adults can be awful, always leave a trail for your parents to follow and respect people’s homes. Jack and the Beanstalk is another – the family cow is important, ensure you get the proper return for your investment, stealing is lucrative and so is upper body strength. Rapunzel is about freeing yourself and the power of true love, Puss in Boots is about dressing for success and harnessing the power of hubris. They’re not always lessons on how to be a good person, but they are almost always about survival, because life will always have monsters. Evil witches in houses made of candy drops and gingerbread still exist, only these days they’re seemingly harmless gentlemen in windowless white vans, handing out candies to children.
Quite a few of them live online, like the Nigerian Prince, a vampire who uses e-mail to promise a substantial cut of his money in exchange for helping him move it out of the country. It will of course involve a very small fee, and anyone who falls for it eventually keeps paying all these small fees, waiting for the big pay-off, getting drained of their life savings in the process. Imposters love e-mail. A number of them use it to claim your Apple/Paypal/Netflix account is inactive, leading you down a path that eventually ends in forking over sensitive information like your birthdate, the high school you went to and your mother’s maiden name, before you realize you don’t even have an Apple account. These fishermen – phishers, because we’re stylish – lay your life wide open for identity theft and before you know it someone is spending vast amounts of money in your name and your credit rating is shot to hell along with your dreams of owning a car and a decent home.
Twitter has trolls under bridges spreading fake news, spewing hate and hissing invective. Facebook has doomsday prophets claiming you’ll lose access to your Facebook account if you don’t forward a particular message to everyone on your friends’ list, and the occasional weirdo who wants people to prove they love Jesus by hitting like and/or share. It gets so confusing, someone I know panicked at seeing an unknown e-mail address in her inbox. Thinking a shady con man was sending her unsolicited mail, not a note saying her e-mail had bounced back, she freaked out. “How did Mailer-Daemon@yahoo.com find my e-mail address?!?”
I worry about my parents. Sometimes I watch them navigate the superhighway of the internet and find myself hoping they’ll be fine. That they won’t fall for the monsters that live online. That no one will take advantage of the endless baby pictures and the occasional slips of too much information because they share them so happily in the spirit of fun, of joyful innocence, like an online diary that’s open for everyone to read. It sometimes feels like I’m stomping on that joy whenever I have to remind them that some things shouldn’t be open to public consumption (“Mom, please don’t share a photo of something that has my full name and address”), that the internet is full of lies (“No Dad, they don’t really mean visas for everybody”) and that they don’t have to do whatever a stranger tells them to do (“Mom, did you get hacked? Why did you message me saying I’ll lose access to my Facebook if…?”).
Exploring the online universe takes a bit of common-sense, and not a little wariness. If something is too good to be true, it probably is. If something is grammatically incorrect, is often misspelled, comes with way too many exclamation points and is indented very strangely, it’s definitely bullshit (unless it’s an e-mail from me, but even so, proceed with caution).
Navigating the internet is like navigating real life. Be vigilant. Trust no one. Never divulge more than you need to. Verify everything, Google is your friend, learn to recognize clickbait for what it is, there will never be free diapers for everyone, and you will never get $500 from Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg for sharing a post. We exercise caution all the time in real life. Don’t throw it the wind when it comes to virtual reality, because charlatans have internet too.