Is the Internet a dangerous playground?
- Caroline Cockerill is the Internet Safety Advocate at Symantec, UK. The opinions expressed are her own.-
Todayâs children have grown up with the Internet, they know more about it than their parents, but do they know the perils it holds?
As the Internet becomes increasingly integral to our lives, children spend as much time in front of their PCs as the TV. Childrenâs access to social networking sites, instant messaging applications and chat rooms, makes them as connected to their peers as if they were standing in the playground.
However, while a playground is a visibly regulated space for children to interact, many parents are unaware of their childrenâs activity online and consequently unaware of any problems they may be having.
In fact, UK kids are spending more than twice as much time on the web as their parents think they are – 43.5 hours per month – as opposed to the 18.8 hours parents estimated, according to the 2009 Norton Online Living Report.
The Internet hides the darker side of childrenâs lives. Bullying as you and I, and their parents knew it, is very different to what children experience now. Teasing and other problems are rife and exacerbated in digital lives, hidden from the eyes of other peers, teachers and parents.
The bullies who harass others online feel like they can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. They feel uninhibited by ânormalâ social restrictions and can be much more cruel online than they would be in reality. In some cases, the psychological impact on victims has greater consequences than physical violence.
Online bullying can range from spreading rumours about people, insulting them on their social networking pages, sending unpleasant text messages or videos, right up to posting videos of humiliating incidents online.
Any material distributed via the Internet can reach many people extremely quickly â even if it is later removed, the damage will have been done. Online bullying can have a huge impact on the victims. It is visible to anyone, and everyone can watch it on the Internet, particularly if the bullies post it on public sites.
The signs of cyberbullying are varied and difficult to interpret, and itâs not easy for parents to protect their children. The most important thing is to ensure bullying is discussed openly in the family. Parents should make their children aware that online bullying is not harmless fun, but can have serious consequences â for both victims and bullies.
I believe that a trusting and open relationship with parents is crucial to the protection of children against harassment on the Internet. Parents can intervene early and prevent anything from escalating. We must not forget that the Internet has so much to offer children and adolescents, and the potential risks are manageable and should not stop us benefiting from the opportunities of the web.