In this, the first of a series of columns addressing youth risk online, cyber safety expert Nancy Willard provides an overview of the various aspects of that risk. Future columns will delve more deeply into specific areas of risk and provide insights into how to address them.
Two key issues need to be kept in mind when reading about youth risk online:
Youth risks online issues include:
One concern is premature exposure to pornographic materials by younger children. It is presumed that many teens will spend some time looking at online erotica. More significant concerns are excessive, addictive access, especially to violent sexual material.
Adult Sexual Predators
Adult sexual predators, generally men, are seducing young people online. They make contact through public online communication services with the objective of arranging for a sexual liaison or obtaining child pornography. It also appears that some teens are quite interested in getting together with such predators for sexual activities.
Self-Produced Child Pornography
Some teens are providing sexually explicit pictures and videos of themselves online. They might be seduced into this activity by adult pornographers, exchange images to earn money or gain attention, or share materials in the context of online relationship-building with other teens.
"Hook-ups" -- Sex Without Commitment
Teens are using the Internet to arrange for sexual involvement with other teens -- for "hook-ups," which is a slang word for "sex without any commitment."
Cyberbullying is being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social cruelty using the Internet or other digital technologies, such as cell phones. Young people might engage in direct cyberbullying by repeatedly sending offensive messages. Or they might engage in more indirect forms of cyberbullying by disseminating denigrating materials or sensitive personal information, or by impersonating someone to cause harm. The harmful impact of cyberbullying might be even greater than in-person bullying because online communications can be very vicious and ongoing, and because a cyberbully can be anonymous, and harmful material can be widely disseminated.
Groups Supporting Risky Behavior
Unsafe online communities support a range of self-harm activities, including suicide, cutting, anorexia, drug use, and other risky behaviors. When "at risk" young people become involved in those groups, they feel that they finally have found acceptance and they take the perspective that "what the group thinks is what I think." That can lead to the adoption of even more harmful attitudes and involvement in extremely dangerous activities.
Hate Groups, Gangs, and More
Hate groups, gangs, and other troublesome groups are another form of unsafe online community. Those groups attract troubled and angry "at risk" teens. School "outcasts" form their own informal hate groups, in which they vent anger and discuss plans for violence.
Cyberthreats can be direct threats or distressing material that provides clues that a person is emotionally upset and might be considering harming someone or committing suicide. Unfortunately, young people also sometimes post threats or distressing material as a "joke" -- a joke that can have serious ramifications.
Many young people are highly attracted to gaming environments. Key concerns are gaming addiction and involvement in excessively violent games. The most addictive games appear to be the multi-player role planning games.
Underage involvement in gambling is associated with social and emotional difficulties, and is a predictor for gambling addiction problems in adulthood. Young people can become involved in so-called "risk-free" gambling-type games -- online gaming activities that offer cash prizes, and involvement in real online gambling casinos.
Since the dawn of the computer age, technically sophisticated young people have engaged in hacking -- more appropriately called computer crime. Recently, the criminal element has embraced hacking and appears to be recruiting young hackers to be their "ground forces."
Plagiarism involves presenting material created by someone else as your own. Plagiarism can be inadvertent or intentional.
New technologies allow more people to disseminate their own creative works, but they also make it easier to inappropriately make and disseminate copies of other people's creative works.
Technical security concerns relate to wide dissemination of many forms of "malware" (short for "malicious software") that can infect a computer. Many online activities attractive to young people can increase vulnerability to security risks.
Parents might think that identity theft is a concern for adults, not teens, because teens generally do not have credit. Unfortunately, identity theft also is hitting young people, as are other scams.
All the risks outlined above can be effectively addressed by establishing safer online places for younger children, and by helping teens gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to make good choices online. Future columns will discuss how that can be done.
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