It’s hard to think of a recent digital technology issue that’s captured the public imagination more than sexting. This may be because it combines elements of the classic moral panic with more modern “technopanic,” provoking worries not just about the morality of our children – and, in particular, young girls – but also about the possible effects of technology on how we grow, think and behave. As with most panics, of course, the issue is substantially more complicated and less sensational than we perceive it to be, and while it’s unlikely that our worries about sexting will ever seem in retrospect to be as absurd as our grandparents’ fears about crime comics, MediaSmarts’ new data shows that many of our beliefs and assumptions on the subject need closer examination.
There’s a long-standing relationship between sex and the Internet. As far as back the 1980s, Usenet and local bulletin board systems were used to share pornographic text files and crude (in both senses) graphics, and people have been using digital media to form and carry out online relationships at least as long. However, just as estimates of how much online traffic and content is made up of sexual material tend to be exaggerated, our new report – Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age – from MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of 5,436 students, shows that for Canadian youth, sexuality and romantic relationships play a fairly small part of their online lives.
It’s been almost fifteen years since Mark Prensky coined the term “digital native” to describe young people who have grown up with the Internet and digital media. In fact, the children who were born the year Prensky’s book was published are now in high school. While for many, the public perception of young people taking to digital platforms like ducks to water persists – accompanied by the image of adults, particularly parents, who are seen (often by themselves) as hopelessly out of their depth – the question remains how close that image is to reality. Are Canadian youth truly digitally literate? And if they are not “digital natives” who effortlessly acquire their skills on their own or from peers, are students learning what they need from their parents or teachers?
How big a problem is cyberbullying? To judge by media coverage, which frequently focuses on the most sensational and extreme cases, it’s an epidemic, and schools and legislators have often responded with heavy-handed measures. Students, on the other hand, are more likely to say that cyberbullying is less of an issue than adults perceive it to be – though even they, in many cases, overestimate how common it actually is. MediaSmarts’ report Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats, the third in a series of reports based on data from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey, suggests that so far as Canadian youth are concerned the answer is somewhere in between, presenting a portrait of online conflict that demands more nuanced, contextualized and evidence-based responses.
Do young people care about privacy? Participants in MediaSmarts’ 2012 focus groups told us that they valued their privacy highly, despite being enthusiastic participants in platforms and activities that adults see as being about nothing but sharing and broadcasting. Looking at the findings from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of more than five thousand students from every province and territory in Canada, we can begin to understand that contradiction: young people may not care that much about what we think of as privacy, but they care very much about control – control over who can see what they post, over who can track them digitally and, most especially, over how other people see them.
For parents of teens and tweens, the Internet can sometimes seem like nothing more than an ever-expanding list of websites to keep up on: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat and so on, with new ones appearing every few months. While the safety risks associated with these mainstream sites are often exaggerated – and it’s more effective to build broader critical thinking skills than to focus on the particulars of kids’ latest favourite sites – there are some websites that present very real and specific risks and that parents are much less likely to know about. These are the so-called “rogue websites” that offer unapproved access to copyrighted content such as music, movies and video games.
To mark Safer Internet Day on February 11, we’ll be joining TELUS in a live webinar discussion of our Young Canadians in a Wired World research. Focusing on our first report, Life Online, our Director of Education, Matthew Johnson, will look at how the online behaviors and attitudes of young Canadians have changed over the past 10 years and what we can do to help keep our kids safe online.
I had a really interesting conversation with my 14-year-old daughter recently. She was wondering why so many adults assume that teenagers are all the same: a bunch of lazy, self-involved jokers who are glued to their devices all day. I didn’t have an answer for her, really, only that people tend to generalize, and that this is Never a Good Thing, no matter who it is we’re talking about.
It goes without saying that eight years is a long time on the Internet. Between 2005, when MediaSmarts published Phase II of our Young Canadians in a Wired World research, and 2013, when we conducted the national student survey for Phase III, the Internet changed almost beyond recognition: online video, once slow and buggy, became one of the most popular activities on the Web, while social networking became nearly universal among both youth and adults. Young people’s online experiences have changed as well, so we surveyed 5,436 Canadian students in grades 4 through 11, in classrooms in every province and territory, to find out how.