When it comes to staying connected, there are almost infinite options these days. Not only can you stay in contact with existing friends, you can also make new ones – all from the comfort and safety of your own home. Thanks to smart phones and computers, you can find people with similar passions, chat with individuals from other countries and share ideas, interests and tips.
This is one of biggest advantages of the Internet – no matter what is going on in your everyday life, you can always find someone to talk to. You can find support and people who seem to understand you, who have experienced similar things or who can offer the equivalent of a sympathetic ear. Connecting with people online – whether you know them in real life or not – can be useful in alleviating feelings of loneliness.
Thanks to social distancing, the need to maintain some form of contact with others is stronger than ever at the moment – and with schools closed, it’s likely that young people are spending even more time online. And while there are, as mentioned, many benefits to accessing others via social media, there are also risks which adults and the young people they look after need to be aware of.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Internet is the fact that users can remain anonymous or mask their true identity, because people with unkind intentions can ‘hide’ and use online communication to cause harm to others. This may take the form of harassing, or of persuading someone to give them money, or to share personal information or passwords, or perhaps coercing them to do something that they shouldn’t do. It may even resulting arranging to meet in real life, with the intention of doing physical harm.
When situations like this arise, it’s not uncommon for young people to try to hide it from adults – often because they feel embarrassed or foolish, or because they are worried about getting into trouble. It’s important for communication around these issues to remain supportive and open, so that if someone with whom an Internet connection exists behaves inappropriately, the young person targeted feels secure about expressing their worries. Carers need to understand, however, that children won’t always instigate a conversation of this nature, so active involvement is necessary. As well as monitoring and regulating Internet use, checking in frequently, providing reassurance and being aware of signs of distress or discomfort around Internet use are vital. When discussing Internet risks, it’s also important for adults to provide a balanced approach, and to point out the benefits of Internet use, as children are less likely to communicate freely about issues if they feel their responsible adult takes a harsh or punitive view.
BEING AWARE OF WHAT THE RISKS MAY BE IS ALSO CRITICAL. FOR EXAMPLE: Cyberbullying: Despite what the old rhyme about ‘sticks and stones’ may claim, words can and do hurt. A victim of online bullying may be the target of one individual or a group of them, and the abuse can have a serious impact on both physical and mental health.
Sexually inappropriate language and images: The sense of ‘distance’ that the Internet provides can sometimes cause users to feel that being sexually explicit is safe. With the risk of, for instance, pregnancy, removed,
young people may not realise the gravity of their behaviour, but it’s important that they are aware of the emotional and personal implications of sexualised behaviour.
Disturbing or triggering content: Young people may be exposed to violent or gruesome imagery and language, as well as sexual. They may also see content that promotes damaging behaviours, such as eating disorders, drug use or self-harm.
Identity theft, hacking, phishing and scams: These include tricks used to try to gain information, like passwords. For example, an email may contain a link promising a bargain price on the latest phone or pair of trainers; once clicked, personal details and security can be compromised, and accounts may be accessed. One result of this might be messages appearing to be sent from someone who is not actually responsible for them, leading to distress for both parties.
Unrealistic body and beauty ideals: The proliferation of filters means that it is not only magazine cover stars who have access to airbrushing these days. Constantly seeing altered images of other people, be they celebrities, bloggers or peers, can lead to young people having negative feelings about their own appearance.
FOMO: An acronym for ‘fear of missing out’, FOMO can lead to obsessive checking of social media. It can result in people feeling distressed when online, because of what they can see other people doing, but also when offline, because they are not part of conversations and interactions. As well as its impact on mood, there are ramifications in terms of time usage, which may detract from other responsibilities, such as school work, and cause further issues.