Safe driving on the information highway

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The use of the Internet and Internet-enabled devices has grown tremendously in the past 10 years. Finding a way to support teens using this amazing technology while keeping them safe from potential harm is a complex issue with many considerations.

Over the past 10 years the rates of both Internet and cell phone usage have sky-rocketed. In 2000, there were 388 cellular users per 1,000 and 477 Internet users per 1,000 in the United States. As of 2009, there were 946 cellular users and 839 Internet users per 1,000 in the U.S. Worldwide growth of Internet users is currently at 399.1 percent and rising, as compared to usage in 2000.

The use of Internet-enabled devices (cell phones, computers and, now, the iPad) by youth is directly related to that media’s availability in their home. Young people typically use this technology if those devices are provided to them by their parent or guardians, although laptop computers are now provided to many teens through their school programs. Alarmingly, few parents or schools are spending time talking with the youth about the safe use of those electronic devices.

Before allowing teens to drive, they (usually) must complete extensive learning requirements, and some schools offer driver’s education as part of their curriculum. Parents spend white-knuckled hours teaching their children how to drive safely and talking with them about the dangers of drunk driving. In short, we do our best to keep our teenage children safe around and within these large metal boxes.

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Shouldn’t we spend a similar amount of time teaching young people to be safe with the little metal boxes of computers, cell phones and other Internet-enabled devices? Instead, we typically let them use the devices without learning how to recognize and avoid the risks that can be associated with their use. This is like giving them the car keys without teaching them how to drive safely.

There has been much written about the phenomenon among young people now known as “sexting,” a combination of the words “sex” and “texting.” It refers to text messages that contain “racy” pictures, sexually explicit text messages or both. However, using that term tends to give it credibility, makes it somehow less threatening, and positions it squarely in the midst of a hip culture.

The risks from the practice of sexting are many and varied. First and foremost, once the pictures are sent to another person, the person who created them loses all control over their originality and distribution. Those pictures can be digitally altered, and they can be distributed to literally thousands of people with a few simple clicks. The person sending the picture has no idea where the picture is going or who will view it.

“Sexting” can also create legal issues for the creator, the sender and/or the recipient of the material. “Sexting” is the creation, possession and distribution of sexually explicit material — otherwise known as pornography. And if the images are of a minor child, it is child pornography. Depending on the circumstances in which the pictures are created and the nature of the pictures, legal charges could be brought against the person who produced the picture, against the person who has the picture(s) on their own devices, and/or against the person who distributes the pictures.

More immediately, however, is the concern about the use of Internet-enabled devices to threaten or harass young people. More and more cases of “cyber bullying” are coming to our awareness, often when they end in tragedy. There have been too many cases of young people’s suicides being connected to grueling months of torment that included sexual hazing, physical and emotional harassment and “cyberbullying.”

This current malicious use of the Internet must stop. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children appropriate and safe uses of the Internet through ongoing conversations and role modeling practices. They can and should encourage their children to talk with them or another adult about any concerning, threatening harassing or inappropriate material they receive. Schools can offer specific Internet safety classes to their students, and the integration of Internet safety and comprehension can be built into core classes.

Finally, we should all focus on helping adults and youth to understand their roles as bystanders in cases of harassment and bullying, whether it occurs in the real world or in the virtual world. Anyone can hold out a hand to someone who is being threatened, harassed or bullied and tell the bullies, respectfully but firmly, to stop their behavior.

And that is a world in which we’d like to live.

Marty McIntyre is executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Auburn. Bridget McAlonan is the education coordinator for the center.

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