In the 1990s, when the Internet first gained a public face, it belonged to adults. In most cases, a home had only one computer that all family members shared, with adults being the primary users. In recent years, however, with the introduction of a wide variety of new products linking to the web and the vast collection of social networking groups that exist online, a new group has come to rule the Internet– teenagers.
Many parents are worried by the idea of predators creeping around on the Internet hunting for their teens. The reality is that they have far more to worry about when it comes to cyber-offenses and their children. Rather than focusing on how strangers may be interacting with teenagers on the Internet, adults perhaps should be more concerned with how teens are interacting with one another on the web.
Adults may be surprised to learn that the threat of predators online is exaggerated and misunderstood. For the vast majority of youths who have contact with a stranger on the Internet, the contact with that individual occurs because the teen sought out the interaction, at least in the beginning. Most teenagers know, without any doubt, not to give out personal contact information to strangers over the web. According to Frontline producer Rachel Dretzin, who filmed Growing Up Online, a documentary that follows teens through their experiences with the Internet, she and her crew had trouble contacting teens online while doing their research for the film. “Most kids we approached were suspicious and loath to respond to requests for an interview over the phone. We tried everything–links to our Web site, offers to send copies of films we had made–but kids are conditioned not to talk to strangers online. It was oddly reassuring,” Dretzin said in an interview with Frontline.
With networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, teenagers today spend far more time expressing themselves and learning about one another than ever before. The availability of Internet access on cell phones makes it possible for teens to always be connected. Electronic hangouts have simply replaced real ones, physical friendships have been reduced to buddy lists and “top friends” on social networking sites and instant messengers, and face-to-face conversations and confrontations barely exist with the availability of text messaging and email. Without the burden of actually having to see the people whom they are speaking and interacting with, teenagers are far more open in these new electronic environments and relationships. It is simply easier for them to present themselves in a riskier light on the web than it is in the physical world.
According to John Grohol, an expert in online psychology issues, “The online disinhibition effect, the phenomenon that prompts people to say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say in the real world, is strongly at work here.” Grohol notes that almost one-fourth of teens have admitted that technology causes them to be more forward than they normally would be. A study done on Grohol’s website, PsychCentral.com, shows that one in five teens is likely to use a cell phone and online technology to send sexually explicit pictures of himself or herself to others. What may seem more surprising is that most teens admit to knowing that this type of behavior is likely to result in serious consequences, but they choose to participate in such risky interactions anyway. Teenagers are aware of the ease with which someone is able to save photographs on a cell phone and computer, and then share those images with others, as a majority of them who have received sexual photographs have already done so. Also, while teenagers understand that these actions can end in horribly embarrassing situations, such as damaged reputations around school, they do not seem to be thinking about the more serious consequences that can occur later in life, such as these explicit photographs surfacing at a college or professional job interview.
The practice of sending sexually explicit images through text messaging and emailing has become so popular that the act has earned its own name–“sexting.” This offense can result in far more than just embarrassment, and even more than the loss of a prospective job or position at a college: Sexting can end in charges of child pornography. It is illegal under federal and state child-pornography laws to create explicit photos of a minor, possess them, or distribute them. These laws were originally drafted to address adult abuse of minors, but they do not exempt minors, even if the photos they are creating and distributing are of themselves. Thus teenagers may find themselves in extremely bad situations after taking part in sexting, even though it might seem to be normal behavior among their peer group.
Decades ago, a child’s home served as a safe haven from bullying and the vicious gossip that exists in schools. Today, with the Internet so widely available in homes, problems at school often follow teenagers into their homes, to their bedrooms, living rooms, and family offices. Because teens are always in contact, so are the rumors, and so are the bullies or people starting the rumors. Cyberbullying is perhaps the most common danger that teenagers face on the Internet.
Reports from a 2008 study published in The Journal of School Health show that 75% of teens have been bullied online, but only 10% have reported the problem to their parents or other adults. Cyberbullying can involve taunting messages; threatening emails; the posting of embarrassing photos or videos on social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube; or harassing text messages. Bullying on the Internet is extremely similar to the bullying that goes on in schools. For the aggressor, however, it is much easier to attack someone anonymously, or from behind a computer screen, than it is to attack someone in person. This anonymity also allows the faceless aggressor to be more cruel, and the victim to be left more confused and without any kind of certainty of the attacker’s identify.
Accordingtothe Journal of Adolescent Health, even if “the majority of kids who are harassed online aren’t physically bothered in person, the cyber-bully still takes a heavy emotional toll on her victims. Kids who are tormented online are more likely to get a detention or be suspended, skip school and experience emotional distress.” In recent years, this emotional distress has even led some teenagers to commit suicide. Many parents and other adults continue to perceive bullying as something that involves only physical contact, which makes it more difficult for them to recognize the psychological bullying that is happening virtually. While suicide represents the most severe outcome of the decline in health and mental wellness that may occur when dealing with teens and Internet offenses, several notable studies have shown that teenagers are greatly affected in other ways, too. An article entitled “Texting Until Their Thumbs Hurt,” which appeared in The New York Times, states that in 2008, teenagers received approximately 2,272 text messages per month, on average 80 messages per day. According to physicians, this nonstop communication is leading teenagers to anxiety, distraction in school, stress injuries, sleep deprivation, and failing grades.
The World Wide Web has allowed teenagers to realize a new kind of independence. Teens who have early curfews and strict parents have the ability to stay out all night in virtual hangout spots, and those who have lenient parents can find infinite freedom online. The dangers of the Internet seem to revolve around poor choices, not predators or lunatics who prey on innocent teen users. Because teenagers are the new rulers of the web, it is up to them to make smarter decisions about how they portray and treat themselves, and how they portray and treat others.
- Dretzin, R. (Writer); Maggio, J., & Dretzin, R. (Directors). (2008). Growing up online. Frontline. Public Broadcasting System.
- Grohol, J. M. (2009, January 6). Teens, sex, and technology. World of Psychology, 1-1. Retrieved July 30, 2009, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/01/06/teens-sex-and-technology/
- Parker-Pope, T. (2007, November 27). More teens victimized by cyber-bullies. New York Times, 1-1. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/more-teens-victimized-by-cyber-bullies/