Some of the most cavilling voices decrying the harm posed by the Internet are ironically some of the most popular web sites – Daily Mail and USA Today, I’m looking at you – and so their pompous opinions are hard to avoid. That, to me, is the most interesting dichotomy of the Internet: “the Internet is harmful” vs. “the Internet is essential”
- 1.6 billion people were online by the end of 2008, equating to almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the world’s population (UN, 2010).
- Kids start watching porn from as early as the age of 6, and begin flirting on the Internet from the age of 8. (USA Today, May 2013)
Is the Internet a danger to our children, or does it represent the third industrial revolution? As with most stories, we will probably not learn from the truth from a single narrative. So let’s examine a couple, and see if we can reconcile them.
Let’s start with: what are the concerns that people have regarding the Internet?
- Privacy topped the concerns of both teens and parents about the negative consequences of online activity: 67% of teens reported this concern alongside 51% of parents, a perception gap of 16%. (Family Online Safety Institute, October 2012)
- 79% of parents are concerned of their teen’s exposure to harmful content, versus 53% of teens, a perception gap of 26%. (Family Online Safety Institute, October 2012)
- 78% of parents are concerned of their teen’s exposure from online posts, versus 59% of teens, a perception gap of 19%. (Family Online Safety Institute, October 2012)
So we already see a difference in what adults see as the key danger, and what children see. What’s the reality?
- [In 2011] 13% of UK 9-16 year olds said they had been bothered or upset by something online in the past year. (EU, 2012)
- In 2012, 30% of children and young people aged 7-16 who use the Internet reported knowing someone who had nasty, unkind or untrue comments posted about them on social media, whilst 18% knew someone who had posted comments like these. 11% had these sorts of comments posted about them, and 4% admitted to posting comments like this themselves. (Childwise, May 2013)
The reality is that the unsavoury side of the Internet isn’t far away. Actually, “unsavoury” is a euphemism that doesn’t help our understanding. I think we have to look a little at the unvarnished reality. I personally find the following stats quite upsetting:
- 11% of UK children aged 9-16 years old have encountered sexual images on the Internet, and 2% have seen violent sexual images all in the past 12 months. (EU, 2012)
- 12% of UK 11-16 year olds have received sexual messages and 4% have sent sexual messages via the Internet. (EU, 2012)
- In 2011-12, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre received a total of 16,550 reports, an average of 1,300 per month. (CEOP, 2012)
- Almost 22% of reports received by CEOP from industry in 2011-12 related to the distribution of self-generated indecent imagery, almost a third of which was produced by children under the age of 15 years. (CEOP, 2012)
The harm that faces children isn’t just from an unknown, faceless bogeyman, but from other children as well.
So we’re vindicated in our mistrust of the Internet? Yes, it clearly can be a dangerous place online, but there is another story told in the stats:
- Telephone or video calls over the Internet were made by 32% of adults in 2012, double the 2009 estimate of 16%, and four times higher than the 2007 estimate of 8%. (ONS, November 2012)
- Instant messaging on chat apps, such as WhatsApp, has overtaken the traditional SMS text message for the first time. Almost 19 billion messages were sent per day on chat apps in 2012, compared with 17.6 billion SMS texts. (Informa, April 2013)
We use the Internet all the time, and it has become indispensible to what we do most naturally – communicate. It has also become indispensible to what most others want us to do – spend money:
- E-commerce sales represented 19% of Annual Business Survey (ABS) total turnover in 2011, up from 18% in 2010. (ONS, November 2012)
- Website sales represented 5.0% of total turnover in 2011, up from 4.6% in 2010. (ONS, November 2012)
- The 50 billionth [iOS] app — Say the Same Thing — was downloaded from the [Apple] App Store by Brandon Ashmore of Mentor, Ohio, USA [on 15th May 2013]. As the grand prize winner, Brandon will receive a US$10,000 App Store Gift Card. (Apple, May 2013)
Admittedly, we hope that our children will be more than the future of consumers. The Internet is already critical in how all businesses do business:
- In 2011, 93% of businesses had broadband Internet and 81% had a website. (ONS, November 2012)
- Over half of businesses (56%) provided at least one member of staff with a ‘portable device’, such as a portable computer, smartphone or personal digital assistant (PDA). (ONS, November 2012)
If we emphasise the dangers over the benefits, I think we do our children a disservice. As the Byron report said, we have to move the discussion on from the Internet causing “harm”. We have to equip our children with the critical evaluation skills to understand and manage the risks. In other words, we need to help them develop a strong online moral compass, as we should do for all aspects of their lives.
More in this series: part 2.