Thanks to the rise in social media, the Internet is perhaps the greatest step forward in human communications after the the printing press. It is also not the cleanest environment in which to grow up. All human life and behaviour is there. Even the most popular sites considered ‘safe’ for young people are difficult to moderate.
There are many potential risks to children and young people using social networking. For all the benefits of instant community, there is also the potential for misuse: cyber-bullying, grooming and potential abuse by on-line predators, identity theft and exposure to inappropriate content not only adult pornography, but incitement to self-harm, racism and terrorism.
Most children and young people use the Internet positively, but sometimes they can behave in ways that may place themselves at risk, not necessarily arising from the technology itself but from off-line behaviours that are extended into the on-line world. We are all effectively opening our doors to strangers and should behave on-line as we would on the street – with attentive caution.
There are many concerns:
- Obesity & health risks associated with prolonged computer use
- Exposure to inappropriate sexual and violent content
- Gambling & gaming costs
Contrary to public headlines, parents are concerned about their children’s saftey with mobile phones and computers; rather, new technology is running ahead of parents ability to comprehend what is ‘natural’ to the generation growing up with it; they need help to be informed and engaged with what is happening.
So before we get into the very real risks of the Internest and Social Media, we should recognise a few truths:
- Children are innovative, fearless, impatient and imperfect!
- The issues are not technical, but educational, social and psychological
- Children embrace the technology very easily
- We must raise awareness, not frighten people
- We must not criminalise children if at all possible
- Cyber bullying, scams and abuse affect people of all ages, not just children
- Safety on-line is difficult to ensure because society has responded slowly to ethical and social issues.
- The law has lagged behind developments in technology
- Technical solutions have been over sold and over relied upon. As a result, criminals have exploited loopholes relentlessly, and on an international scale.
When thinking about solutions, a balanced response is required.
- Clamp-downs often serve to drive illicit activities ‘underground’, where the behaviour becomes worse
- Some children are more vulnerable than others to the dangers of technology, and those who are vulnerable on-line are generally (but not always) the same children who are vulnerable in areas of their life in the off-line, real world.
This is not to say that the Internet should be rigidly regulated and policed. None of us wants to live in an on-line police state. But it is necessary to recognise the potential for harm and come up with sensible strategies for dealing with it. This requires a good deal of personal and parental responsibility; it is not up to ‘society’ or schools or governments to deal with these risks – however well-intentioned, they usually make a hash of it.
Censorship creates dark places where access will still be sought-after and available at greater risk. Games such as Manhunt 2, Bully, or Grand Theft Auto IV should be openly questioned and analysed by adults alongside children. Children should be helped to routinely question and develop critical awareness and honest consideration of the “benefits” of such games.
Where to start?
Just recognising that all these risks exist is one step to protecting against them. The next step is to understand what defences and risk reduction is already available on-line. For example, most social networking sites set a child’s web-page profile to private by default to reduce the risk of personal information being shared in a public area of the site. After that, we have to look at the additional software measures that can be put in place alongside the necessary process of education of young people to guard themselves against these hazards.
That is where we will pick up the second part of this article.
In the meantime, you can find further guidance at the following locations:
- (UK) NSPCC inform – child protection resources for anyone working to safeguard children
- (UK) Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP): and for safety and education materials Think You Know
- Childnet International a charity that is helping to make the internet a great and safe place for children, have developed a set of award-winning resources called Know IT All.
- ChildLine is a service provided by the NSPCC offering a free and confidential helpline for children in danger and distress. Children and young people in the UK may call 0800 1111 to talk about any problem, 24 hours a day.
- The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is the internet hot-line for reporting illegal on-line content specifically child sexual abuse images hosted worldwide and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content which is hosted in the UK.
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