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Young people and the internet: how it affects their wellbeing and how to improve it

The internet is no longer new. The idea of a ‘digital native’, someone who has grown up around the internet and smart devices, is no longer a new concept, as the first generation of digital natives begin to enter adulthood.

Parenting a child who has access to the internet is the norm, rather than a risky new endeavour plagued by possible dangers. As the online world has become part of our daily reality, adults expect children and teenagers to use it with ever more fluency, while also seeking to keep them safe.

Two young people on their mobile phones

Unfortunately, for both adults trying to keep children safe and children trying to keep themselves safe, that job is made much more difficult by the poor quality of discussion around internet safety. People have an abundance of different views on the internet and social media, regardless of education or expertise. This piece has already presented the internet as a threat, rather than acknowledging the support it can also offer youngsters. Social media is labelled as a major risk factor for young people, whether it be from cyber bullying, predatory behaviour, or as a source of mental health issues. As Natasha Devon has frequently pointed out, social media is often a scapegoat. In fact, young people are far more aware of their own use of social media than one might realise.

The Internet as a moral panic

In order to have a clear conversation about the risks and benefits of social media and the internet in general, it is important to see the internet in perspective. One concept to introduce is latency: the amount of time it takes to access a medium. In the 1950s, to access the news, one had to buy a newspaper, or turn on the radio or TV at the right time. Today, that access is near-instant and often free at point-of-use. The internet offers not radical new cultural mediums, but rather lower latency access to existing mediums: TV, images, books, people. The internet represents our societies, but faster.

Why is this important? It matters when the internet is caricatured as dangerous above all else. For example, in the UK recently, the BBC’s ‘Moral Maze’ programme identified the internet as a source of pornography and social ill, and little else. The internet as portrayed here is an instant gateway to the worst of human society, rather than a reflection of the whole of human society. The programme did little to acknowledge the tools parents have at their disposal to place websites on the hypothetical ‘top shelf’ of the internet: monitoring usage, content restrictions, and parental controls, all of which enable children and teenagers to access the internet relatively safely. And while this example is specific to the United Kingdom, every nation has cultural dinosaurs, those people unwilling to accept the salience of the internet in everyday life.

The internet represents society, but faster

With sensible guidance and tools in hand, the internet goes from a source of moral panic to a source of information, entertainment, and for many teenagers, support. Data on teenagers’ use of social media and the internet is still somewhat spotty. That said, Common Sense Media recently surveyed 1,000 American 13-17-year-olds about social media, and their responses are intriguing. Firstly, the majority of teens use it: 81%. Teenagers perceive social media as a risk, but also mostly say that it has a positive effect on their lives, whether by making them less lonely, less depressed, or making them feel better about themselves, as well as offering them a creative outlet.

Vulnerabilities still exist

Yet the same report reiterates familiar concerns. Vulnerable children are more vulnerable online, and online interaction has risen at the cost of face-to-face interaction. More teenagers are exposed to more objectionable content, such as racism or homophobia.

These issues vary from child to child, and while social media platforms hold a considerable level of responsibility here, parents can largely control them. Parents can reduce screen-time on specific apps, as well as on devices overall. They can set up content-specific blocks for websites and devices, as well as general age guidelines. The solutions aren’t particularly radical.

However, perhaps more problematic is the quality of education children receive around the internet. While online stranger-danger education rightfully abounds, few children are ever taught about data privacy, information and media literacy, internet security and other important topics. Incidentally, these are topics that most adults lack good knowledge about too, ensuring that issues like identity theft, online fraud, and unfettered tracking will continue.

Cyberbullying is a problem

One of the more pernicious elements of the ubiquity of being online is cyberbullying. It is a news buzzword that gets wheeled out whenever elements of the internet are criticised. How bad is it? There are few good figures on bullying in real-life, but a 2010 survey of over 500,000 American students found that 1 in 6 children (17%) are bullied. While that data is somewhat dated, and can’t be accurately compared to the Common Sense Media survey, the latter data has 87% of children saying they have never been cyberbullied, with 9% saying they have been cyberbullied a few times or many times.

With the internet, bullies can now follow you home

Without diminishing the pain cyberbullying can cause, there are tools to manage being cyberbullied, as unpleasant as it is – you can block individuals or limit their access to your social media profile or account, something that isn’t as easy in a school hallway. There is also (generally) a permanent digital record of the bullying. Despite this, the panic over cyberbullying is and was genuine, in part because it makes the bullies harder to escape: they can now follow you home. Here we see the internet as life with lowered latency come true in sad fashion.

Yet that lowered latency also has benefits, as mentioned previously. Detractors of the internet have raised the concerns listed here before. But it is time to point out that as the internet reflects the worsts of our society, it also reflects the best. There are innumerable resources there explicitly to help people, and many more that aid so without ever intending to do so.

Support is everywhere

For those who are lonely, social media, forums, and community groups offer instant access to friends and supportive communities. This is particularly important for those with disabilities, whether affecting looks, mobility, or their ability to communicate: the internet acts as an equaliser, allowing them to communicate on their own terms. This offers agency and dignity to those who might otherwise struggle to find it as they are growing up in the analogue world. Geography can also cause loneliness, and the internet can transcend that: for a gay teen in a socially conservative country, the internet can help them establish their identity in a virtual world when they are unable to do so in the physical world.

The same forums also facilitate creative self-expression, giving budding artists a chance to blossom outside of major art schools, giving writers the chance to move people with words, and those with other talents to show them off, whether it be dancing, singing, or one of the millions of other delightfully creative pursuits.

The internet offers instant access to supportive communities

Peer support is a powerful thing, and it’s not just for those teenagers who find themselves outside of the normal, looking in. Online learning has exploded in the last decade, with everything one could dream of being taught online. There are traditional teacher-student websites, like Udemy or Coursera, with universities and startups offering courses from traditional academia to niche hobbies, but there are even more forums where curious young people can seek advice and solutions from their more experienced fellows. Stack Overflow offers programming solutions for the enthusiastic techie, Reddit forums offer advice on every single topic imaginable, and The Student Room makes applying to university that little bit simpler.

Online self-development tools are also available, democratising what might have previously been an expensive visit to an in-person therapist. While person-to-person therapy is still extremely important, it isn’t necessarily available to everyone, while the barrier to entry for online tools like the ones Minddistrict offers is significantly lower. Now, universities and colleges who might otherwise struggle to deliver counselling for all of their students are able to deliver some level of care no matter how busy their staff might be.

The internet has risks, and it also has benefits. Children and teenagers can and will experience both sides of it. The key here is to ensure that technical precautions like age restrictions support practices that promote emotional wellbeing. The two come hand-in-hand: technical precautions can stop a teenager from accessing individual pieces of potentially harmful content, but constant attachment to a smartphone will still likely lead to an emotionally and physically unhealthy lifestyle. Digital moderation supports mental wellbeing, and vice-versa.