In the past, cultures have developed stories such as fairy tales that help children act out alternative selves, along with ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage to deal with the transition to adulthood. In the adolescent digital ecosystem, in an absence of healthy, community-based rites of passage, this has been weaponized driving users toward violent extremes. Heather Chaplin, Director of The New School’s Journalism and Design Program who has conducted research in dark play and gaming theory, discusses how gaming and social platforms’ exploit children’s curiosity and exploration of provocative content for profit, and – in the digital realm – without boundaries. She concludes the platform’s social engagement model incentivizes “a race to the bottom.” Meanwhile parents, teachers and other caregivers may not understand the lawlessness of the internet as a playground, believing the “dark web” is somehow cordoned off from youth.
“It’s not the dark web, It’s the web web.”
A phenomenon we observe unique to the 10-15 age group is the tactic in which far right extremist rhetoric is adjacent to or is embedded in taboo content – such as pornography or violent “gore” — mixed with “edgy” dark humor and off-color and offensive content targeting adolescent males in a highly stimulating cocktail of complex messaging.
The nature of this content mix, delivered via platforms’ infinite scroll, ensures that dangerous content is intermittently situated within a stimulating feed including benign and even wholesome content, rendering all content into an undifferentiated, desensitizing stream. This preys on adolescent instincts toward what experts in anthropology, developmental psychology and folklore describe as “dark play” – a natural curiosity to explore or “play” in the uncharted waters of identity, power, gender, sexuality, fear and death outside the boundaries of adult-imposed rules for gameplay.