Internet safety: Teenagers are well aware of dangers online

Internet safety education, whether from the media or parents, has made teenagers paranoid about online dangers, says a new study. Our guest blogger says it's time to shift Internet safety education from avoidance to literacy.

Amanda Cowan/The Corvallis Gazette-Times/AP
Internet safety education has made teenagers paranoid about online dangers, a recent study says. Here, Crescent Valley High School senior Margaret Hyde, right, helps make game cards for a paper version of the computer game she is creating with classmates including Fauzi Kliman, left, in April 2012 in Corvallis, Ore.

Now for the good news in the youth part of Ottawa-based MediaSmarts’s report “Talking to Youth and Parents about Life Online." (I previously highlighted the parents' section.) Well, mostly good news. It sounds as if “Internet safety education” has made the youngest among the 11-to-17-year-olds that MediaSmarts talked with pretty paranoid: “From (11- and 12-year-olds') perspective, the Internet is a very dangerous place. They told us that sharing any information put them at risk of being kidnapped, assaulted by a stranger, and stalked.” (This misinformation is called education?)

And how sad, because – even though “they demonstrated strong resilience when it came to dealing with both offensive content and unwanted conversations with strangers … clicked out of offensive sites, (and) knew not to talk to strangers” – they had been taught all this was necessary because “people were not trustworthy,” they told MediaSmarts.

So here’s a mere sampler of the good news MediaSmarts turned up in a series of 12 in-depth conversations with 66 young people:

  • General state of their safety: They showed “strong resilience about dealing with ‘creeps’” and “almost universally limit online interactions” to people they know offline. “Chat rooms were universally seen as dangerous.”
  • Friendship expressed online (intelligently): Young people have “a clearly defined set of rules about what friends post – and do not post – about friends. Personal attacks were generally forbidden and a sign that a friendship was at an end…. Pictures were highly regulated by all of our participants…. An unrealistic number of online ‘friends’ was seen as inauthentic and a sign of desperation [Note that a protective social norm is developing here.]…. ‘Spam statuses’ were an indicator that someone was seeking an inappropriate amount of attention and was therefore not a desirable friend."
  • They see the need to disconnect, too: “Although a few of our participants told us that losing access to the online world, even for a week, would be catastrophic, many of them talked about the need to retreat in order to re‐establish a sense of privacy.” (So many adult "pundits" seem so proud of having thought of this – books have been written about it, even.)
  • Cyberbullying, resilience and good strategies: Youth find online meanness easier to deal with than the offline kind, MediaSmarts found. That’s because the visibility of online interaction “leaves a digital trail … [and] lets them challenge bullies publicly and hold them to account.” They “demonstrated a strong resiliency when it came to cyberbullying” and “clear strategies: first, ignore it and de‐friend or block the person (typically a very successful strategy); if it continues, then confront the bully face‐to‐face because it is easier to call someone to account in person; and if that does not work or you are not comfortable talking to the person directly, call in your parents and they will help you resolve the conflict.”
  • Big caveat about school intervention, though: “Almost all … were disdainful of school anti‐bullying programs; they felt that, in general, teachers and principals did not understand the kinds of problems they might face and only made things worse when they intervened."
  • Surveillance nation (more noteworthy than good news): Young people feel “the Internet is now a fully monitored space where parents, teachers and corporations keep them under constant surveillance,” so they see “parental monitoring” as “the price of admission” for being able to use connected devices. But, unsurprisingly, they’re forgiving too: “In spite of their frustration with parental monitoring, almost all our participants felt their parents were acting out of good intentions,” MediaSmarts found.
  • About parental monitoring: “The teenagers who did share the details of their lives with their parents were the ones who were not routinely monitored. Trust in this case was mutual,” indicating that “monitoring alone may work against open family dialogue.”

Practices by age levels

  • Tweens’ interest in exploration and pranks: “The Internet was particularly useful when [11- and 12-year-olds] wanted to learn more about things they would encounter in the future, like places they were going to visit on family vacations, high school and jobs. This kind of exploration provided them with a safe way to ‘rehearse’ things and become more comfortable with teenage and adult roles.” They’re also into “‘pranks and ‘trolls,’ where someone would fool you and misdirect you to the wrong site on purpose.” While this may be seen as a risk, it also teaches critical thinking: “Pranks helped them learn how not to be fooled.”
  • Early teens (13- and 14-year-olds): MediaSmarts noted how much this age group “enjoyed online humour and sites that allowed them to post anecdotes and read silly things that other people had done. They enjoyed laughing at and laughing with others who did things that were foolish or silly, and found comfort in the fact they were not the only ones who were likely to do something 'stupid.'” Some engaged in social action, but “the main uses of networked technologies were for connecting with friends and self‐expression.” While 11- and 12-year-olds found social networking “boring,” 13- and 14-year-olds find social media use an “important way to communicate their feelings, so they could better understand themselves and their social interactions” – though feeling under constant surveillance by adults, as all the age levels did, “made it difficult for them to express themselves for fear of reprisal.”
  • Older teens use social media “to talk to friends, organize events and gatherings, follow celebrity gossip … access YouTube videos to learn how to do things like dance" … "keep in touch with friends,” and access “the outside world.” Because they feel so closely monitored by the adults in their lives, “anonymous online self‐expression [such as blogging under a pseudonym] … played an important role in helping older teens make sense of the social world and their place in it.” (It may also help explain why Twitter use by this age group is now growing fast).

So note the confidence in young people this conclusion from MediaSmarts shows: “In spite of widespread concerns on the part of adults, the young people we spoke with were aware of online risks, largely self‐regulated their own behaviours to avoid and manage those risks, and consistently demonstrated resiliency and competence in their responses to those risks.”

Based on this research and so many other inputs, isn’t it time to shift the focus of “Internet safety education” from avoidance to literacy – the digital, media, and social literacy that supports their current efforts to turn digital media into tools for effective work, play, communication, and activism in social digital-media environments (as well as offline ones, of course)?

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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