THE INTERNET IS one of the most important inventions of the last century. Created and gifted to the world by its inventor, the internet has transformed business, sparked social change and has been a positive space for the majority of users.
Concerns about the safety of young people online has been growing recently in the wake of the tragic deaths of Leitrim teenager Ciara Pugsley, after anonymous comments were allegedly posted on a social networking site called Ask.fm and more recently, Erin Gallagher in Donegal. Calls have been made for social media websites to be regulated more closely to prevent recurrences of last week’s tragedy – but is it solely a case of regulation, or is there a place for education to play a role?
As social media evolves to encompass more than just Facebook and Twitter, new plug-in services like formspring, Ask.fm and others will become more and more popular amongst young people. These sites allow people to comment anonymously leaving young people open to the risk of bullying and harassment. What’s important to remember is that some of what is being said is not true, it’s not acceptable and that concerned users should take a step back and talk to someone they trust if they’re worried.
Comprehensive regulation of social media has become almost impossible, not least owing to the difficulties in identifying users, especially those living overseas. Instead we must teach young people how to use the power of the internet for good and know when to report inappropriate or harmful online behaviour. Learning how to interact online is just as important as emphasis placed on the development of interpersonal skills offline. Parents teach their children how to behave in real life situations and it should be no different when young people log onto sites such as Facebook.
Those who become cyber bullies or impact negatively on the experience of others need educating too; primarily they need to be made aware of the impact of their actions. There is a case for social education to take place in ICT lessons in schools so that young people are not only taught how to use the tools but how to show respect for other users. The internet is such an important developmental space for young people, and offers incredible opportunities through access to the educational resources it hosts. Keeping up to speed with developments in online technology will be hugely important for the working lives of our current generation of young people.
We as a society need to acknowledge and be open about the risks faced by young people online but by no means should we encourage children to be afraid of the internet. If we teach our young people the difference between good and bad online behaviour then there is no reason why they can’t become confident and responsible web users. We also need to show our young people where to go for help if they do become concerned about another user’s behaviour.
One suggestion has been to ban offending websites or have parents prevent their young people from using certain social media sites. We must remember bullying takes place offline as well as online and banning young people would be as reasonable as banning bullying victims from ever going outside again. We simply need to educate our young people how to interact online just as we do in real life.
Here are some tips on staying safe online for parents and young people:
- Having an open conversation with children from an early age about responsible use of the Internet is the key for parents and guardians.
- Parents need to talk to children and young people about the impact of words written online. Hurtful words have just as negative an effect online as they do offline.
- Building up trust with young people, so that they know they have a trusted adult to talk to if they come across something online that worries, upsets or has an negative impact on them.
- Parents and guardians need to remember that they won’t be able to control everything that young people do and say online. In that regard it’s important to ensure that young people know how to stay safe, are aware of dangers such as sharing too much information; meeting up with people online they don’t know.
- Responsible commenting that respects others rights not to be harmed
- Knowing how to block/report
- Letting young people know about supports such as www.childline.ie
- That bullying of any kind is not acceptable
Ian Power is communications officer at SpunOut.ie, Ireland’s youth website. They provide health and wellbeing information to young people aged 16-25. They also provide a space for young people to have their voices heard, to create personal and social change.