The internet is undoubtedly a wondrous tool; offering boundless positive opportunities and helping us learn, communicate and share globally, captivating us all; none more so than the first generation of “cyber-fluent” young people, over a quarter of whom spend between four and six hours online every day.
These young people are, for the first time, able to project every fleeting thought and feeling instantly into a mass audience.
But we have to ask the question: are young people sharing too much online? Risking exposing themselves to cyber-bullying and other potential harms? And shouldn’t we be doing more to educate them to use the internet in the safest and most positive way possible?
Ahead of Safer Internet Day on Tuesday (February 11), the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) and McAfee released data exploring this. It showed that 14 and 15-year-olds are most likely to adopt risk-taking behaviours and to “over-share” online – 11 per cent had shared revealing videos or photos of themselves and 1 in 10 had seen online an inappropriate, revealing or pornographic image of someone they know. More than half of this age group had shared a photo of themselves.
The simple act of sharing a photo may seem harmless, but with seven per cent of this age group admitting to consciously “liking” an unkind image of someone they know, it seems that young people are often unknowingly exposing themselves to comment and attention without necessarily having the emotional or practical skills to deal with situations which might arise.
Cyber-bullying behaviour remains a research weak-spot, but what is clear, is that instances of cyber-bullying have risen in the past year. In January, ChildLine reported a large increase in calls from children with concerns about online bullying – cases had almost doubled to 4,507 in 2012/13.
Findings from ABA suggest that the 14 to 15 age-group displays a lack of understanding when it comes to recognising the difference between “banter” and bullying; only 29 per cent saw that their cruel and abusive comments may be considered mean to the person on the receiving end.
Research also highlights that young people need help to understand what is and isn’t appropriate online behaviour and with recognising the potential consequences of their actions: 34 per cent of respondents had witnessed cruel behaviour online; 22 per cent had been subjected to it themselves. This age group is also most likely to access dangerous content, be exposed to cruel or mean behaviour, and encounter unwelcome adult attention. A quarter had seen porn online, and half confessed to hiding online activity from parents, with a fifth actively deleting their browsing history.
This research suggests that young people, particularly young teenagers, are displaying risk-taking behaviours and freely sharing information with what is essentially a global, and sometimes anonymous, mass audience, without grasping the permanence or “digital tattoo” these exchanges leave.
As adults it is our responsibility to teach young people digital skills and to set boundaries from an early age so they are able realise the huge benefits and opportunities that the internet has to offer. We need to see a cross-curricular approach, including English, drama and PSHE, where children can be armed with both the practical knowledge and situational awareness to protect themselves online.
Further informationRelated teaching resources can be found at www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/resources.aspx and details on software to protect household devices are at http://home.mcafee.com/store/mcafee-livesafe
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.