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.
We don’t always hear the clock ticking when we’re online and young people are no exception. Between doing research for homework, talking with friends, updating social networking pages and playing games, it’s easy to see how kids and teens might lose track of time. Excessive Internet use, however, can negatively affect young people’s school work, health and social lives. Unfortunately, adults don’t usually discover this problem until it’s become serious.
It’s tempting for parents to act authoritatively and lay down the law on the number of hours their kids can spend on the computer. But in order to effectively address excessive use, there needs to be an active, voluntary commitment on the part of the young person to control their behaviour. Otherwise, kids will just find ways to work around their parents – and be left to their own devices once they’re old enough to leave the house.
Sexting is most likely to have negative consequences when the person sending the sext has been pressured into doing it.
It is natural for adolescents to be curious about sex: MediaSmarts’ research suggests that one in ten grades 7- 11 students use the Internet to look for information about sexuality. Forty percent of boys look for pornography online, with 28% looking for it daily or weekly. The problem with pornography is that it is an unhealthy response to a healthy concern.
Recent research has shown that not all youth are equally at risk online, nor are all online activities equally risky. Rather, there are certain characteristics and online activities that could be considered risk markers – indications that someone is likely to take risks online and fall victim to online sexual solicitation. Many of these markers are the same as those used in the identification of at-risk youth; in general, the same youth are at risk online as offline.
Media and communications technology play an important role in a student’s health and physical education, for better or for worse. The new Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum provides a spring board to start discussions related to health and media literacy.