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.
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.