Desktop and laptop computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), gaming systems and other electronic devices offer unprecedented ways for people of all ages to interact, learn and entertain. What we consider ordinary today was unimaginable only a decade ago. Social networking sites, “blogs” and text messaging so heavily relied on by so many now, either did not exist or were not widely used. At the same time, it has become as easy to interact with someone in a distant nation, as with a next door neighbor.
However, as wonderful as the technology is, the many "potholes" on the information highway are real and often harmful. It is more important than ever for children - and adults - to be well informed about the advances in technology and ever-evolving risks.
- Misinformation: Some web sites that appear to be legitimate are filled with inaccurate and misleading information
- Pedophiles and other exploiters easily misrepresent who they are and can establish direct one-to-one access with children
- Pornography: Adult pornography can easily be accessed by children on the Internet
- Child Pornography: The Internet provides child pornographers with a powerful and anonymous distribution vehicle; “sexting” has exponentially increased distribution of child pornography - pornography which is often produced and distributed by children
- Cyberbullying/Online harassment
- Privacy invasion/Identity theft
- Internet addiction
- Violent or hateful content
- Intellectual property theft
- Downloading harmful files
Electronic technology is ingrained in the social and academic lives of the “Cyber Generation.” Key results from a 2009 survey conducted by Harris Interactive among a representative sampling of U.S. teens between the ages of 13 and 18 years include:
- Technology enabled: Ninety-one percent of teens have an email address and 60 percent have an instant messenger screen name. Seventy-three percent of teens have a cell phone and 59 percent have a digital camera.
- Acceptance of Social Networking: Seventy-two percent of teens surveyed have online profiles on social networking sites where many have posted photos of themselves and their friends, along with personal information.
- Conflicted over Safety: Most teens surveyed are aware and concerned about the risks of putting personal information out in the open. Fifty-nine percent say having personal information or photos on a public site is unsafe, and 26 percent say they know someone who has had something bad happen to them because of this. Still, 62 percent of teens post photos of themselves on blogs or social networking sites and greater than 40 percent name their school or the city in which they live.
- Prevalent Cyberbullying: More than one-third of teens surveyed have been cyberbullied, perpetrated cyberbullying or know of friends who have experienced or perpetrated it, and 68 percent think it is a serious problem. About 4 in 5 teens (81 percent) think that bullying online is easier to get away with or to hide from their parents than bullying in person.
- Engaging in Sexting: Nineteen percent of teens surveyed have engaged in sexting -- sending, receiving or forwarding sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos through text message or email. Sixty percent of teens who sent sexts say they send photos to their boyfriend/girlfriend, but 11 percent say they have sent sexts(1) to someone they don’t even know. Eighty-one percent of teen sexters are under 18.
- Online wirelessly: Nineteen percent of teens surveyed go online via their cell phone and 19 percent say their parents are unaware. The vast majority of teens (80 percent) whose parent know they go online via their cell phone say they are not given any limits or -- far fewer than are given boundaries on their desktop PC or laptop
Although many of the risks encountered in cyberspace also exist in the "physical world," the interactive nature makes it much harder to ensure safety. For example:
- Many common sense measures used in the "physical world" are not applicable in the "cyber world."
- Children often understand more about technology and the Internet than their parents, teachers, and other care-givers.
As described by John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted, "Teens are not only online, they are active in every nuance of cyberspace. Many have no controls over what they do online and of those who do, nearly 30% figure ways around the boundaries set by their parents. Those parents who have been vigilant over their kids’ use of the Internet via their computers, haven’t extended their watch to their kids’ use of the wireless devices, which are increasingly offering predators all the access they need to our precious and vulnerable young ones. Teens are prone to choosing risky behaviors even though they know better, so parents must continue to regularly talk with their children and monitor their activities."
Considering the extensive and immense international reach of the Internet, government and industry regulation will never be sufficient to protect children from online dangers. Safety awareness and education, for both children and adults, is the most effective measure. In the end, as with all aspects of raising a child, on-going parental involvement is essential.
Reading and Resources:
- State of Online Safety Report 2008 - Family Online Safety Institute (2008)
- Growing Up Online - Frontline - Public Broadcasting Service (2008)
- "The Net Effect - Girls and New Media" - Girls Scouts of the USA (2002)
- "Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later" - National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2006)
- "Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth" - National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2000)
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