The potential dangers of the internet are often highlighted by the extreme: a college freshman jumping off a bridge after becoming a victim of cyber bullying, a 13-year-old kidnapped by an online predator, locked in a cage, tortured and raped. The world can be a dangerous place but it is all the more unnerving when it seems that children and youth are just as at risk even when they’re at home in front of their computers.
According to a 2009 Pew Internet survey, 93 percent of Americans aged 12-17 use the internet and 73 percent of them are on social networking sites. In the United Kingdom, 74 percent of 9- to 19-year-olds have internet access at home. An overall estimate of global internet usage among the youth is hard to come by but with internet users worldwide currently estimated at 2 billion and more than 500 million of them on Facebook, we can surmise that a sizable chunk of those are young people.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, online predators became one of the most publicized threats against children on the internet. In 2002, a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped and abused by a couple she met in a chat room. There was also the case of “Dr. Evil,” a man who was expecting to meet with a 13-year-old girl. He was arrested in a sting; the child he thought he was talking to online was a county sheriff. Police found an ax handle, paring knife and duct tape in his truck when he was captured.
More recently, cyber bullying was identified as a growing problem among young people. This issue became more magnified when a 15-year-old girl who became a victim of cyber bullies killed herself last year. A study has shown that victims of cyber bullying could suffer worse degree of depression than their tormentors, whereas in real-world bullying, both the victim and the bully are likely to be depressed.
Cyber bullying exacerbates feelings of isolation and helplessness. There’s the anonymity factor; your tormentors are faceless, you don’t know who exactly are saying these horrible things about you. There’s also the public nature of cyber bullying. When nasty words are posted online, everyone can read them and they will be there forever. They won’t just be confined to your school or your neighborhood and they won’t be conveniently erased and forgotten.
Internet addiction has also been pointed out as an area of concern. A lot of young people spend so much time online that it’s almost unimaginable for them to go a day or even a few hours without checking their Twitter and Facebook accounts.(Of course, one could argue that this addiction is hardly limited to the youth but that’s another story.) Like any other addiction, this becomes a problem if being so engrossed with the internet hinders them from focusing in school, being involved in their families and exploring the “offline” world.
These issues may scare us and perhaps prompt us to wall off children from the online world. Many of today’s young people, however, are growing up with the internet as an integral part of their lives. This could make them vulnerable to its risks but it also makes them smarter and more well-informed about its nature. In a documentary on youth and the internet, the online-savvy students who were interviewed were actually aware about the threat of online predators and know better than to entertain them. Young people who are particularly vulnerable to internet sex offenders are those who have had histories of physical and sexual abuse or have suffered from a troubled childhood. Taking this into account would help in devising targeted efforts to address the issue of online predators.
To combat cyber bullying, some cities have set up help lines which children can call if they become targets of cyber bullies. Parents have also called for anti-bullying task forces to be established in schools. Providing help to vulnerable children would go a long way in preventing another teen suicide. Promoting decent and respectful online behavior could also help in reducing cyber bullying.
While internet addiction has gained attention over the years, its official classification as a disorder is still under debate. Nonetheless, suggestions on overcoming internet dependence include teaching children about setting a limit on time spent online, cultivating interests in other activities, and seeking counseling should the condition become severe and too disruptive.
The internet has become a powerful force in modern society in so short a time. This has been a good thing in a lot of ways; it has revolutionized communication and information-sharing among other things. However, it can also be frightening and overwhelming especially when it presents a danger to young people. There are things we can do to empower children and the youth so that they would be educated internet users. But let’s also take comfort in the fact that today’s generation can be competent enough to adapt to and thrive in this rapidly advancing technological landscape.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2005-0924/Shehzad Noorani Adolescents attend a computer-skills training session at the UNICEF-supported Youth Information Center in the town of Portmore in the parish of St. Catherine. Each child is allotted 30 to 45 minutes of free computer time, including high-speed Internet access.