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Cyber Savvy:
Supporting Safe and
Responsible Internet Use

Youth Risk Online:
Foundational Concerns


In my last column, I discussed specific youth-risk online issues. In this column, I'll address some of the foundational concerns that cut across many of the specific online risks.


Major portions of the Internet operate as a commercial enterprise. So-called "free" online sites for children and teens function as massive vehicles for market research and advertising. Market research activities include demographic research (researching specific demographic groups) and individualized profiling (profiling the interests of individual users). Advertisements can be targeted to a specific demographic group or to an individual user. The key products promoted online to children and teens include junk food, toys, entertainment, clothing, and more junk food.

Advertisers are using the Internet to engage children and teens in new ways. All their techniques are designed to promote "brand loyalty." Those techniques include:

  • Preference marketing -- encouraging young people to sign up to receive "free" newsletters about their favorite product.
  • Viral marketing -- enlisting the involvement of children and teens in sending marketing information to their friends.
  • Advergaming -- integrating advertising messages into online games and other entertainment.
  • Social Network Marketing -- a merger of the above techniques on social networking sites. Companies create an entertaining profile that advertises a specific product, and encourages teens to link to that profile and to invite their friends to establish links.


Young people appear to have limited understanding that information posted online or sent electronically is -- or could easily be made -- public for the whole world to see. Many young people provide personal contact information that could allow someone dangerous to find them in the "real world." Many also post or send intimate personal information or images that could attract predators, or could be used in dangerous ways by cyberbullies or others. Other teens post material that could damage their reputation and hinder future educational or work opportunities. There is only one aspect of privacy that teens appear to be acutely alert to -- any effort by parents to "invade their privacy" by seeking to monitor their online activities.

Telling young people simply not to disclose personal information online is not effective. Different kinds of personal information might or might not be safe to share under certain circumstances. That includes personal contact information, financial identity information, intimate personal information, reputation damaging material, and personal interest information. It also is important to protect the personal information of others.


Addiction and media multitasking are likely key contributors to school failure.

Internet addiction is an excessive amount of time spent using the Internet, resulting in a lack of healthy engagement in major areas of life -- family, friends, school, work, exercise, personal interests, and sleep. The Internet is available 24/7. The game never ends. Someone is always online to gab with. Some teens spend hours online -- surfing, gabbing, and gaming -- resulting in devastating damage to their health, grades, and personal relationships. Internet addiction is a concern in and of itself, as well as a key indicator of other concerns.

Many children and teens also frequently engage in media multi-tasking. Brain research studies demonstrate an important finding: Our brains are not designed to multi-task. What our brains do is engage in rapid sequential shifting of focus. If one of the tasks involved requires an in-depth understanding of an issue or creation of a quality work product, it is necessary to eliminate distractions to properly focus. Many young people engage in media multi-tasking while doing their homework and even while working at school, limiting their in-depth understanding of the material and resulting in inferior work.

Want More?

For more Education World articles by Nancy Willard, see Keeping Kids Safe Online, Insuring Student Privacy on the Internet, and Schools, the Internet, and Copyright Law.


The Internet has allowed everyone to become a "publisher." Anyone can establish a Web site and post information online. Determining whether the information presented online is credible is a challenging task for youth, as well as for adults. Unfortunately, recommended strategies for establishing credibility online can be used by anyone -- including those presenting highly biased, self-serving material or material of questionable accuracy, and those with the intent to scam.

A recent study by Consumer Reports indicates that most adults judge the credibility of a site by its appearance. Because anyone can establish a Web site that appears to be credible, it is necessary to teach students more effective strategies for determining credibility. Those include:

  • Consider how you got to a site. Information on sites accessed through a credible source, such as link from a research resource already known to be reliable, is likely more valid than information found on sites accessed through a search engine.
  • Determine who else thinks the site is credible. Type the address of the site without the http:// into a search engine and find what other sites link to the site you want to use.
  • Look for evidence of bias -- such as a desire to sell a product or advocate for a certain position.
  • Determine whether the information is fact-based or opinion-based.
  • Look for consistency of information -- among different sites and in books.


Young people will meet strangers online. The emergence of social networking sites has greatly expanded youth contact with others. Younger children should only communicate with known friends.

Most of the time, teens too are communicating with known friends or acquaintances. At other times, however, they are interacting with online strangers. Although most online strangers are other wonderful young people, or even adults who present no danger, teens must learn how to assess their credibility and safety. They can do so by

  • investigating the profiles of strangers,
  • looking at who the stranger's friends are and assessing the friends' profiles; and
  • assessing the quality of the stranger's interactions with others.

They should take some time in doing that -- because it 's hard for anyone to maintain a faade over a long period of time. Any in-person meeting with an online stranger can present potential danger and should only occur with a safe meeting plan that has been approved by parents.

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