The little cousins are over, spending the night. They are middle schoolers, giggly and rambunctious, lying on their stomachs in the living room as they check their MySpace accounts on their laptop.
My cousin Jane and I do not remember being like this when we were their age. We didn’t pore over “hot” profile pictures that our friends posted, nor did we spend hours of our days in front of a glowing screen.
“Check out our YouTube videos!” the kids crow out proudly.
We walk over and sit down cross-legged in front of the computer screen. They’re clicking onto their account, the one that they all use together, the one for the films that they make in their spare time. This could be cute, Jane and I think. This could be the newer version of the things that we used to do as kids, like putting on ridiculous skits or karaoke-ing to Disney songs.
The screen pops up, and I immediately feel ill.
The title of their video – and I’m approximating here – is literally something like, “Little kid jerking off in pool.” My little cousin who is 12, but looks eight, is the star of the video. I can make out his pixilated image, and though the video is by no means explicit, I am horribly disturbed.
“Oh my god,” says Jane. There is horror in her tone. “I don’t want to see this. Close it.”
I glance over at my little brother. To my relief, he is not laughing along with the other cousins. Instead, he has an uncomfortable smile on his face. When he catches my eye, we send each other a look. The look says: “What the fuck?”
The laughter dies off, and the kids reluctantly close the screen, clearly miffed by our lack of enthusiasm. “It has over 2,000 views,” the youngest cousin explains.
“I directed and filmed it!” another pipes in.
“And I produced it!”
“There are other ones too…”
“Like the one with the dog!”
By this time, I just want to crawl into a corner and try to forget that this ever happened. Later on, Jane and I sit in her room, ritualistically applying make-up and doing our hair like we did at slumber parties when we were younger. We get onto the subject of the kids.
“Is this some kind of generational gap?” I cry, dismayed.
“I’m so disturbed,” she responds. “What the hell? We were never like that; we never even thought like that! I mean, what are we supposed to do?”
We don’t get what this is, and we can’t come up with answers. We don’t know what to do when our little cousins show us these videos, when one of the girls points us to a pornographic manga series that she reads. Are we supposed to tell on them? Is this supposed to be a normal part of growing up?
“I don’t know what to do,” Jane whispers to me, her tone worried and conflicted.
It’s the code we’ve grown up with – we never snitch on each other. Jane and I grew up as sisters, practically, and we would never think of telling on each other. We’ve shared all our secrets since childhood, bitten our lips to keep things from our parents. On long car rides, my cousins and I whisper into each other’s ears, share gossip about love lives and other things the parents will never be privy to.
But this – we don’t know what to do with this. “When they start prostituting themselves on the Internet,” I say, in a poor attempt at a joke, “then we’ll tell their parents.”
You grow up thinking that all situations are morally right or wrong, that you’ll know exactly what to do when the time comes to make a decision. But sometimes, it’s not so easy. Jane and I, we know that what the kids are doing is wrong. We know that there’s something sick about it, something dangerous.
But maybe we’re mistaken. Maybe it’s a normal part of growing up; maybe we don’t understand because we grew up in a different time. It’s confusing, and it’s disturbing, but mostly, it’s sad.
I don’t know what to do anymore, and so I think I’ll wait it out and hope for this best. But all I know is this – we’re all losing our innocence, and it’s not a good thing.
TERESA PHAM is neither light nor funny this week, and she apologizes for that. E-mail complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. XXX