As a boy I remember being captivated by the concept of a “feral child” — a human being who is raised in absolute isolation from other humans. The most famous cases include Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” and Disney’s Jungle Book character, “Mowgli”.
Mowgli was my hero, even though I never dared to tell anyone. You will remember he was the 10-year-old boy who was raised by a wolf pack and, despite opportunities to return to a man-village, longed for nothing more than to stay in the jungle. Not even the fierce tiger’s plans to kill the boy out of hatred for all humans could deter Mowgli from preferring his sometimes aggressive jungle friends to the unknown world of creatures who, on the outside, appeared to be more like him.
This morning I had a blinding, light bulb moment. I was looking at the newly released photos of Shawn Hornbeck, the 15-year-old Missouri boy who was recently discovered in the apartment of his kidnapper, Michael Devlin, after four and a half years of captivity. It occurred to me the photos serve a greater purpose than offering morbid fodder for curiosity. They paint a stark picture of the modern day “feral child”— a child raised primarily by the Internet.
From the age of 11 to 15 — arguably the most formative years of a child’s psychological development — Shawn apparently immersed himself in cyber space, while his disturbed captor spent long days at work.
Am I mistaken when I say his intense virtual life on the web, combined with seclusion from positive human relations, is an extreme case of what many children live today? Neighborhood life has all but disappeared. Tree forts, cops and robbers, “ding dong ditch”, bicycle chases, and wiffle ball have been largely replaced by computer games and Internet chat rooms. The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently reported 55% of all American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites.
As in Shawn’s case, the problem for the average child is not the existence of technology. It is the unfettered and instant access to the best and worst of human activity without the ability to discern for himself what is good and what is bad.
Where did Shawn learn to pierce his eyebrows and lips? Why did a “Shawn Devlin” call himself a “white atheist” in chat rooms? Why does he appear in pictures holding a gun and covering his face like a “gangsta”?
Shawn’s story is certainly more complicated than we could ever imagine. But no matter what else went on behind those apartment doors, we know one of Shawn’s major formative influences was the same computer that sits on our desk and at the reach of almost every child in America.
If Shawn, after being deprived from the loving presence of his parents, friends, and local community for four and a half years, looks and acts a lot like our children, it may be high time to review our children’s formative influences, online and off.
Feral children are only heroes in fiction books.
God bless, Father Jonathan
P.S. Writing this article has triggered my interest in continuing to study and communicate the influence of technology and media on our lives and society. Let me know if this also interests you. Maybe we’ll do a series.
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