Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Children and the Internet

Many of today’s young adults used the internet on a regular basis in their youth, I certainly did. The internet made its way into my home in the mid 1990’s, when my brother and I were in our mid-teens. By this time, the personal computer had become a standard appliance or entertainment device in households, and the internet was quickly becoming a standard utility much like cable TV. Interesting enough, my family subscribed to cable just one year before subscribing to AOL. Needless to say, the Secore household quickly flooded with media.

I feel that the early internet experiences of my brother and myself were much like what Sonia Livingstone describes in her article, we preferred online activities that were centered around media that we were already familiar [1] with, (from that new cable TV and radio) predominantly music. My brother and I felt these activities were normal, because most of our peers were online at home too. Just like Livingstone describes, we become the family computer and internet experts. Our parents were always looking for ways to police and limit our activity. This was the dynamic in play in my household over a decade ago, and according to Pew Internet about two-thirds of parents with teen internet users have rules regarding how long their children can use the internet today [2]. According to my parents, their parents treated TV much like they treated the internet- it was a privilege and not a right, and there were time limits and rules in place.

In many ways, the internet to my generation is what the TV was to theirs.

This statement has a great deal of truth to it if you are just look at the internet on the surface. But in so many ways, the internet is a much more powerful media than the TV was and is, because it is so very interactive and there is a greater variety and amount of content available. There is a large amount of objectionable content that children can see on the internet, and it is all available on demand. While sexual and violent content can be found on cable TV, it is more available and accessible to children online. It’s obvious that not just the visual content (such as pornographic images) that we must be aware of, it is the space of chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking that parents and those interested in protecting children must be aware of. That said, the internet has the potential to be more dangerous for children than TV. Children cannot have an interactive conversation with TV, while they can have dialogue with strangers via the internet. Livingstone points out that children are more likely to trust online information than adults are. This trust is what allows online pedophiles or predators to prey on children online. Pew informs us that nearly a third of teens on the internet (mostly girls) have been contacted by a complete stranger online [3]. Not all of these contacts result in behavior that is considered objectionable, but unfortunately some do. Some of these “relationships” go from internet space into “the real world” and children are hurt and exploited.

Children’s internet use also raises many questions about children’s privacy. Some of today’s teens are more willing to share very personal information on the internet such as some photographs, cell phone numbers and even addresses. From my own experience, I believe that this is because they have new mediums in which to share the info (ex. Facebook or MySpace) and because it is more socially acceptable/normal to do so. There are privacy features available on social networking sites, and according to a Pew report 59% of teens have their online profiles set to “friends only.” I also assumed that teens restricted access to their profiles because they did not want their parents to view them. I assume this because I was a teenager using the internet once, and I’m surrounded by teenage family members who use the internet. My assumption is a correct one, since the same Pew report says that nearly two-thirds of teens who know their parents are aware of their online profiles set them to “friends only.” [4] We’re also confronted with the question: how private can your information/images be when if your online community so large? In same cases teens (and other populations) partake in “Friend collecting” also known in online social networking communities as “friend whoring” - adding “friends” just for the sake of growing your network [5]. Maintaining a large network of “friends” my help a child feel more popular and accepted. Pew reports that most teens take steps to protect their privacy in the areas “most obvious areas of risk” [6] and “friend collecting” is not practiced by all teens. It should still be noted that sharing any information or personal images online does create a risk. Features like “tagging” on social networking helps create a large “web” in which undesirable parties may view photos or information. Furthermore, photos can also be saved to one’s hard drive, and distributed by unauthorized individuals via alternative means.

The internet is collection of spaces that children can find many opportunities within. Livingstone points out the children perform different types of tasks on the internet at home and at school [1]. There are educational websites that children can visit and gain a lot from. When children are outside of the walls of school, they’re more likely to partake in other activities online such as social networking and chatting. The internet can break down walls and allow children (and all people) to communicate with people to have similar interests whether it is a particular band, sports figure, type of art or video game. Livingstone also points out in her paper that children mostly use their online communication to supplement their real world social circles and suggests that most contacts that children make online are local [1]. In some respect, online communication is to today’s youth is what phone calls were to previous generation.

The way in which our culture obtains information has changed, and is still changing. A number of different literacies have emerged in recent years; it’s not just about reading text anymore. Livingstone points out on page 154 that literacy is a source of social power. More activities are being performed online, such as filling out unemployment forms and filing income taxes. Today’s children will have a substantial disadvantage if they are not allowed to develop essential technology-related skills.

Children’s internet use aids them in developing identity, allows them to participate in different forums and grow their communication skills [1]. I believe that these are all important skills in one’s development; I feel that internet use helped me as an individual develop these areas to some degree. While certain aspects of the internet are “dark,” (such as the potential of isolated children becoming more isolated [1], possible exploitation and contact by strangers) children’s use of the internet and internet literacy are vital to them growing and gaining power in our society. I feel that not every child who uses the internet will become an internet addict, pornography addict, or engage in illicit or illegal activities, but some may. It’s important to remember that children got into trouble long before the internet was created.


[1] Livingstone, Sonia. Children’s use of the internet: reflections on the emerging research agenda.

[2] Parents also use non-tech solutions to protect children. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2005/Protecting-Teens-Online/How-families-navigate-the-potential-challenges-of-being-online/06-Parents-also-use-non-tech-solutions-to-protect-children.aspx?r=1

[3] Friendship, Strangers and Safety in Online Social Networks. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-Privacy-and-Online-Social-Networks/6-Friendship-Strangers-and-Safety-in-Online-Social-Networks/02-32-percent-of-online-teens-have-been-contacted-online-by-a-complete-stranger.aspx?r=1

[4] Online Privacy: What Teens Share and Restrict in an Online Environment. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-Privacy-and-Online-Social-Networks/5-Online-Privacy--What-Teens-Share-and-Restrict-in-an-Online-Environment/05-Teens-walk-the-line-between-openness-and-privacy.aspx?r=1

[5] Community Portal Survey.

[6] Teens, Privacy and Social Networks. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-Privacy-and-Online-Social-Networks/1-Summary-of-Findings.aspx?r=1

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