Just over ten years ago it would have been difficult to imagine the impact that the Internet would have on our present world. With 685 million internet users worldwide as of November 2003 and with 400million in the US and western Europe alone, the net is proving to be the most fast spreading new media across the globe. It is influencing culture, communications, publishing, commerce, education and every aspect of what it means to be human on planet Earth in the new millennium. The Internet revolution has been sweeping the world for some time and the trend is only likely to increase over the years to come. The Internet is here to stay and a social phenomenon to be reckoned with.
The advantages and benefits of the Internet are almost too many to list. Businesses and commercial sites have the opportunity to advertise their products and services to larger and more diverse communities. Normal people, that would usually not have had access to such a wide audience, are enjoying expressing their creativity by carving a little corner of the web reflecting their hobbies and interests. As banks, organizations, government bodies and utility companies move online, it is easier to pay bills, track accounts and avoid trips to crowded and congested offices. The net is increasingly providing a seemingly infinite wealth of opportunity and information to anyone that cares to access it.
The paper free nature of electronically transmitted information allows for limited publishing costs. An unprecedented bank of knowledge and data is available online, often free of charge, providing an invaluable tool for distributing and finding information, creating a huge comprehensive world library on line. It is no surprise then to find that schools and libraries have been gradually integrating computers and the World Wide Web into their classrooms and facilities. An English survey shows that many school children these days know more about the Internet than they do about books, a sure sign of the changes that the electronic superhighway is already creating for the younger generation. As the Internet becomes the norm in most western homes and schools, however, new challenges are arising that are particular to this new medium. Alongside the many and wonderful great contributions that the net is making to the lives of children and adolescents, there are new issues emerging that are important to keep in mind when raising or educating your child.
Chat-rooms, emails and message boards allow kids to communicate with others through their computer from the privacy of their home. This is a great way to have fun, meet friends and be exposed to new ideas, but there are, unfortunately, some dangers presented by this new form of interaction. The anonymity of these online environments can allow for adults posing as children to be able to meet and speak with kids. The FBI has issued a warning that child molesters and pedophiles have become very aware of the opportunity given by the Internet in providing contact with children. These adults might use obscene language, frightening or shocking the child, or even attempt to arrange a meeting. There is potential for abuse from strangers, suggesting a need to educate children about these kinds of people, teaching them what to do in case an encounter of this kind were to occur. It is generally a good idea to teach our children to not share personal details such as addresses, telephone numbers or the name of their school. Just like once upon a time we taught our children to not accept sweets from strangers, parents need to teach them to not arrange meetings with people they meet online, without discussing the matter with them first.
The Internet is changing the way we interact socially and children are not immune from this process. On the one hand instant messaging, online chat and email are making communicating with others seem much easier. But, on the other hand there is concern that thus might be happening at the expense of more intimate forms of communication. There is concern, from a developmental prospective, that the ease of interacting from behind a computer screen during the formative years may create difficulty with intimacy later in life. Research studies on the effects that Internet communication is having on children and adolescents seem to point to the fact that kids that use the internet a lot spend less time with their real life family and friends. It would seem that teens are particularly at risk of becoming isolated, maybe because teenagers generally struggle in their interactions as they change into adults and go through the initial teething problems of searching for their identity. Peer relationships are a very important developmental stage for teenagers and it is wise that parents encourage their teens to keep at least one foot in the world of real relationships.
It is easy to shop online, as products are just one click away. The current generation of children and adolescents is the first to grow up with such easy purchasing access. Young people are traditionally less discerning than adults with regards to money matters. Kids just want the toy or computer game they see, not always understanding the value of the amount of money that it costs. Children have always been easy pray to advertising, so nothing new here. There is however growing concern with regards to the amount of advertising to which they are being exposed to on the web. Research studies show that the Internet is rapidly reaching the fourth position in media advertising spending, surpassing cable television, magazines and the yellow pages. Buying on the web is child’s play. Advertisers are very aware of this and there is an increasing amount of targeted advertising aimed at children on child and teenage sites, soliciting kids to buy online. If credit card details are already stored on the site or are easily available, kids can buy unsupervised. It is a good idea that parents be mindful of their kids and adolescent’s access to credit card information and online purchasing.
Children’s exposure to pornography and obscene material is probably the most significant and common cause for concern with regards to the topic of children and the Internet. Pornography is rampant on the net and even if most sites of the kind request that a person be over eighteen years old to access the site, the sites often display previews in which very explicit images can be seen, without need for access codes or payment. Obscene material is so wide spread on the net, that a child may stumble across it by chance, without looking or searching for it. In fact, if the children have an email account and especially a free email account such as hotmail or yahoo, it is likely that they will receive spam advertising that promotes such sites. I have for some time been appalled at the callousness of the people advertising porn sites and bombarding adults and children alike with obscene emails. These emails are often sent with fake sending addresses or misspelled subject lines that are made intentionally difficult to block from the junk mail filters. The only way to get rid of the obscene emails is to go to the site and unsubscribe. Unsubscribing is usually quite complicated and to do so, it is often necessary to walk through the pornographic site one wanted to avoid in the first place.
As adults, it is easy to see through this obvious attempt to lure us into the site and to appeal to a certain base level of sexual consciousness within our being. Although statistics illustrating that one in four adult men might be addicted to online pornography, may be showing us that adults are also experiencing the negative effects of over-exposure. Children and teenagers are even more vulnerable. Very explicit images can be very shocking to a young child. Sexuality is a great and wonderful dimension of the human experience. It seems however that introducing sexual stimuli at a too early age can be very disruptive to the healthy sexual development. Teenagers at the onset of puberty are also very vulnerable to this kind of very basic appeal. The sexual content of many of these sites is very raw and deviant, introducing an early unhealthy exposure for developing teens.
The most common response by both parents and schools to the issue presented by objectionable web content is to employ some form of web censorship software. However, after a deeper investigation, it becomes clear that this obvious solution has some pitfalls of its own. First of all it would seem that most software is not as effective at blocking obscene material as one would expect. Many sites fall through the cracks. Also it would seem that many of these software packages are blocking far more web content than that which is being advertised.
I was first made aware of this when I was a teacher in London at the end of the nineties. Our school had an Internet censorship program in place to protect our students from questionable content. I used to spend time on the net during my lunch hour at times and, as I am very interested in spirituality and metaphysics, I would often attempt to access some of my favorite web sites. I was denied access by the censorship software every time. I became curious and called the education authority, asking for the censorship criteria. It took a while, but eventually I managed to talk to the person in charge that told me that the education authority was quite clueless of censorship content. All they had done was to approve a standard censorship software package during a meeting. I asked to be sent the software details. When I received it I was amazed that, alongside sites with obscene content, spiritual, religious, political sites of all kinds were also being excluded. Further research has shown me that I am not the only one to have noted this fact. A very interesting organization, Peace Fire, has a whole site dedicated to investigating possible censorship of ideas through the use of prepackaged censorship software. It appears that many software packages are blocking religious and political content, although it is not clear if this is done intentionally or if it is just a sign of glitches in the program design. Intentional or not, it is wise to ask detailed questions when installing a censorship program on your computer and to ask for a list of censorship criteria. Some companies have a secrecy policy with regards to blocked sites. I personally prefer to know what material is being blocked and why.
The Internet is a wonderful and powerful tool of the new millennium that has a great appeal on our young. The language of computer technology is one they understand well, often better than we do. There are great riches to be gained from the net: knowledge, exposure to different cultures, a wider connection to the world and the collective family of humanity. Our kids will benefit greatly from much of what is being offered to them via the web. The issues and challenges of this new media can be conquered with just a little awareness. As usual, knowledge is power. Make sure you are knowledgeable about the pitfalls of the net, so you can avoid them. Supervise your kids and teach them to share with you about their internet experience, especially when very young, so you can be aware of what they are being exposed to. Make a copy of the internet safety guidelines, now available in most libraries. At the same time, be aware that excessive monitoring and censorship strangles life. All your kids to be as free as the concern for their safety allows.
©2004 Katie Gallanti. All rights reserved. http://katiespapers.blogspot.com. This article was first published in Children of the New Earth Magazine in the fall of 2004.
Bibliography and further reading
Internet world usage statistics www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm
BBC Online Network. Kids know more about Internet than books http://www.nua.ie/surveys/index.cgi?f=VS&art_id=905358419&rel=true
Children and the Internet. Issue Brief Series (2000). Studio City, CA: Mediascope Press.
Internet Safety Guide For Parents. http://www.nbc10.com/family/1932126/detail.html
Peace Fire http://www.peacefire.org