Teens and preteens are at the heart of the social Internet interacting with others through chat, instant messaging, social networking sites, in virtual worlds and online multi-player games. It is inevitable that at an age where young people are starting to explore their sexuality offline, they will do so online in these interactive environments as well.
When most people think about sexual risk and harm on the Internet, sexual predators come to mind. Because of its sensational nature, the spectre of unscrupulous adults preying upon and sexually exploiting kids online gets a lot of media attention. Although this does happen, sensational headlines do not help us understand the nature and true extent of the problem or how to deal with it effectively.
As adults, we want to foster resilience in young people, starting when they’re young. This can be done by teaching them how to handle harassing messages or requests that make them feel uncomfortable – on the Internet or in the schoolyard – and, as they get older, by teaching them how to spot and respond to emotional manipulation. The good news is that most teens are effectively handling online requests from strangers – the bigger challenge is helping them handle sexual advances from people they know.
Despite all of the concerns about what youth are doing with digital media, MediaSmarts’ study Young Canadians in a Wired World (YCWW) has found that not only are most kids not getting in trouble online, they’re often being actively kind and thoughtful towards people they know.
As we grow, we pass through distinct stages of moral development in which our ethical thinking is based on different principles. The second stage in learning ethics is becoming aware of rules that either punish or reward us for doing something: younger children are most motivated by a fear of being punished for bad behaviour, but become more concerned with the rewards of good behaviour as they get older.
Empathy is at the heart of ethics. In order to develop a sense of right and wrong that goes past just being afraid of punishment or hoping for a reward, we have to be able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.
It’s important to make young people aware of the laws that apply to what they do online, as well as to have household rules that cover online behaviour. For example, MediaSmarts’ YCWW research has found that students who have rules in the home relating to various web activities are less likely to engage in risky online behaviour , and another study has found a strong association between kids visiting websites mentioned in ads and an absence of household rules on Internet use .
Though we sometimes talk about the online world as being “virtual reality,” the things we do there can have real consequences. When we’re using the same screen to talk to our friends that we use to kill aliens or when we can’t see the people we’re hurting, robbing or copying from, it’s easy to forget that what we do online matters. This section looks at some of the reasons why youth might behave differently online than they do offline and strategies for getting them to see the online world through an ethical lens.
There are four main ways in which other people’s personal material can be shared online. The first is when we post a photo or video that we took which has other people in it – with or without their knowledge or consent. The second is when we share material that someone else has posted – forwarding a photo that someone sent us, for example, or posting a link to someone’s video or even “Liking” someone’s Facebook post (which makes it visible to your Facebook friends as well as theirs).
With younger children, the best approach is to have a clear and consistent set of rules, both at home and at school, about sharing other people’s content.