Child Behavior: Teens & the Internet

Part 2 of a 2-part series on our children and the new technology

Last month I related some of the issues pertaining to the new technologies available to children and adolescents with special attention to the Internet.

Read Part 1 of this 2-part series

There are numerous benefits technology has provided to both children and adolescents; this is especially true in the area of education and communication. Among the obvious benefits for the educational use of the Internet is the ease of obtaining a wealth of information, literally at the adolescent’s or child’s fingertips, including text, sound and video.

The Internet as a social environment

The Internet is also a significantly important social environment for today’s adolescent, and even younger children are exploring social communication via cyberspace. Socialization in adolescence contributes dramatically to the issues that impact their well-being throughout this developmental period. Issues of identity formation, self-esteem, and sexuality are now explored in the virtual world of cyberspace.

Potential benefits of anonymity

The knowledge adolescents and children now have at their fingertips gives them the potential to be the best-informed generation in history. The Internet also allows youth to communicate with other adolescents about these emotionally-sensitive topics in a forum-type setting.

The anonymity the Internet provides often allows kids to speak more freely and honestly about their thoughts and feelings than they would in face-to-face communication. Adolescents can practice and rehearse social interaction in these chat rooms or blogs, thereby gaining confidence for social interactions outside of the Internet.

There is some compelling research evidence that communicating on the Internet is beneficial to kids who experience shyness or are socially awkward.

The Internet allows these adolescents to practice social skills without the anxiety that face-to-face interaction brings them. This Internet communication can also allow marginal adolescents to feel a sense of connection to other teens, who may share similar problems or concerns.

An additional benefit is that the Internet allows kids to belong to a number of “Internet communities” of like-minded teens around the world who share similar interests, concerns, or hobbies they might not find in their immediate neighborhoods.

Potential risks of anonymity

Although sensationalized headlines have exaggerated the risks associated with Internet use, and have increased parental concerns, there are caveats for Internet use that parents of adolescents need to be aware of.

Due to the ease of accessibility and its interactive nature, the Internet can be a powerful tool of abuse. Adolescents have the freedom to communicate with anyone they choose and literally post anything they wish. Often anonymous communications in chat rooms, blogs or through instant messaging send an adolescent an unwarranted and unwanted offer for sexual activity. The majority of teens have reported communicating with someone on the Internet that they have never met or don’t know at all. As many adolescents have also reported using “fake” identity information, the risk of an adolescent communicating with a person masking their true identity is a real danger.

There are also inadvertent dangers on the Internet. An adolescent looking for school information may be sent to a site with explicit sexual information. Frequently an innocuous search word will bring up one of the thousands of pornographic websites presenting images and information that can confuse a child or adolescent’s idea about sexuality and relationships.

Learning unhealthy behavior

The Internet can also direct an adolescent to sites that reinforce and support unhealthy behavior. There are web sites that provide information on how to hide an eating disorder or self-injurious behavior such as “cutting” from your parents, as well as sites on drug use and drug-use devices. There are also hundreds of web sites that introduce adolescents to such topics as self-starvation, mutilation, racism and violent sex, as well as gambling sites — all accessible to teens.

Substitution and cyberbullying

Socialization on the Internet can be an excellent adjunct for the healthy development of social skills in adolescence. However, the Internet can also be a substitute for what an adolescent doesn’t find in real life. Individual or small-group, face-to-face communication is often being eclipsed by the establishment of relationships and friendships on the Internet. Socially anxious teens may substitute cyber-friends as an alternative to real-life friends, and become further socially-isolated from reality, creating any image of themselves they choose without the benefit of social feedback. The Internet can also become “addictive” for some teens. Too much time on the Internet can keep kids away from other healthy outlets, especially physical activity and face-to-face social interactions. Additionally, “cyberbullying” has become an increasing problem among adolescents. Cyberbullying, different from face-to-face bullying, is when a teen spreads rumors or insults by means of text messages, e-mails, blogs or posts embarrassing pictures or videos of the victim on the Internet.

Like any new medium embraced by youngsters, parents need to monitor their children’s or adolescent’s activities. In the ’80s, the warning message to parents was, “It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your kids are?” Today’s message to parents should be, “It’s 10 o’clock, do you know what your kids are looking at?”

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.

Other articles by Paul Schwartz