Teenagers and the Internet

04/07/2015 02:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015
Maria Teijeiro via Getty Images

Almost all teenagers in first-world countries have a strong Internet presence and extensively share personal content and opinions online. The 2011 Pew Internet survey reported that 95% of U.S. young adults between ages 12 through 17 are online, of whom, 80% have profiles on social media sites, as compared to only 64% of the online population aged 30 and older.

Why is there so much media use among teenagers? The answer lies largely in the change in lifestyle of the upwardly mobile population where increasing numbers of single working parent and dual-working parent households raise latchkey kids and after school programs that eat into play and socialization time of the kids. The lack of time for face-to-face socialization is compounded by practical issues such as mobility difficulties, curfew legislations and parental restrictions that stem from fears of predators, drug dealers and gangs. Changes in society, market and law, along with the advent of Internet and its various applications, have thus resulted in the emergence of a decentralized social life in a virtual setting.

The increased presence of youth online has raised serious concerns about the safety of Internet and social media use. Difficulty in self-regulation, lack of awareness of repercussions of privacy compromise and susceptibility to peer pressure are listed as reasons for teenagers' cavalier attitude towards online risks such as sexting, cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate content as they navigate the tricky waters of social media. On the other hand, there has also been criticism of the moral panic that surrounds the safety of extensive digital (in particular Internet/social networking) use by youth. So, is Internet really a minefield or is it just a digital-extension of the pervasive stereotype that demonizes youth?

Moral panic notwithstanding, the risks of Internet and social media to teenagers is just as real as the risks in society. Cyberbullying, in the forms of name-calling and gossiping, spreading rumors, making threats or otherwise sending malicious messages through emails, message boards and social media, has augmented offline bullying and estimates of the incidence of cyber bullying range from 23 to 72% in various studies (see here, here and here). Exposure to age-inappropriate content is another serious risk because it causes much damage to an age-group that is already prone to sexual uncertainty and uncommitted and possibly unsafe sexual exploration. Dangerous communities that support self-harm activities, such as anorexia, drug use, and such other disruptive concepts are also serious pitfalls of unsupervised Internet usage among teens.

Of course, seeing the above risks as standalone perils will raise mass hysteria against youth or Internet or more likely, both. It must be remembered that the online risks to adolescents is a subset of overall teenage hazards. Youngsters already emotionally imbalanced or prone to disruptive behavior are obviously more vulnerable online and are more likely to commit to unsafe or irresponsible actions in the virtual world. However, there are some risks that are common to all youngsters and such risks are largely built on the attitude and behavior of the youth themselves, rather than them being victims of an unfair attack.

Research has shown that there is a positive correlation between parents' level of privacy concern and that of their teenaged children. Thus, parents can influence their children's attitudes and behavior through advice and perhaps monitoring the media presence of these teenagers. However, the latter could be a double-edged sword, as teenagers, naturally inclined to rebel against parental insurgence into their private space, may practice deception, which may override any parental measure to increase safety. For example, adolescents may use pseudonyms and false identifying information like age and location to protect themselves, on the advice of their parents. Ironically, the same technique could also be adopted by them to insulate themselves from the eyes of parents.

Many youngsters suppose that security through obscurity is protection enough. Teen bloggers, for example, often believe that their audience is limited to their friends and (less likely) family and could reveal compromising information and exhibit themselves in provocative and socially unacceptable forms. The personal anonymity of the Internet is, however deceptive, especially for teens, who are the focus of two groups of people -- parents, teachers, local government officials, etc., who may wish to protect them, and marketers and predators that do harm.

Peluchette and Karl from the University of Southern Indiana found that young adults in the U.S. expressed little concern about sharing updates and pictures on social network sites such as Facebook. Women were more concerned about future employers seeing some of their pictures and comments, especially those related to alcohol, than men. The women were justified by a 2013 survey that reports that 1 of every 10 young job applicants was rejected because of content they had posted on social media, including "provocative or inappropriate photos or posts," and "content about drinking or using drugs."

Online victimization of youth is only one head of Janus. The youngster, without proper guidance, could be a perpetrator herself; indeed. A recent study by McAfee reports that 15% of teens have hacked a social network account, 30.7% access pirated movies and music, 8.7% have hacked someone's email online, 16% of teens having admitted to looking for test answers on their phone and 48.1% of teens having looked up answers online.

It is very essential for a child to know of the potential risks even before she enter tweendom. Early intervention and education enables the teenager to make responsible decisions on how to use the net and its various functions. For this, open communication between the adult and child is extremely important from early childhood. It is indeed tricky to find the balance between setting boundaries and giving freedom but it must be done early on to enable easy and safe transition of the teenager into adulthood.