Time to shed fear of the Internet

Published: December 8, 2014 12:17:18 AM

Need to collapse the mental firewall between physical space and digital space, says global Web safety expert Anne Collier

Around four years ago, David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, coined the term “juvenoia”—mixing ‘juvenile’ and ‘paranoia’—to define what he called “the exaggerated fear of the influence of social change (including the Internet) on youth”. According to him, while it can’t be denied that Internet has dangers on it, it wouldn’t be right to say it increases dangers. His argument has been “when kids go online, bad things can happen, because they can happen anywhere…”

In these four years, the World Wide Web has only expanded, with more pocket-friendly connected devices flooding the market, and ‘juvenoia’ has become more pronounced. And that is why the ‘problem’ requires a more practical approach now, feels Anne Collier, co-founder & co-director of Connect Safely.org, a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness about Internet safety.

“Rather than restricting or monitoring internet use, parents should let their children discover the Internet, both good and bad, themselves,” says Anne, who also serves on the Facebook Safety Advisory Board. “For some reasons, we have this mental firewall, which is very artificial and inaccurate, between physical space and digital space. We need to collapse that firewall and have all the same social norms in the digital space as we have in the physical space,” she says. Anne lists empathy, respect for yourself and others, an inner guidance system and literacy—digital, social and media as the internal safeguards that come into the picture .

While risks do exist in the virtual world, harassment and cyberbullying being the most common, research has found that not all children are equally at risk and no single technology can end these online risks, says Anne. A child’s psychosocial makeup and the environments at home or school are better predictors of online risk than the technology he or she uses, she says.

“The number one online safety tip for parents is to talk to your kids…ask them what’s their favourite app these days, tell them to show you how they set their privacy settings in the apps and on the devices. Another thing parents can do is let older siblings help the younger ones. Sometimes, children don’t want to tell their parents what they are doing online, but they can talk to an aunt/uncle who is a cool relative, who looks after you but isn’t very heavy handed, and you just trust her/him. That’s a good option for parents. So, it’s more of humanity than technology, because it’s social media,” says Anne.

In the Indian context, says Anne, schools and society have to open up more to digital literacy. Unlike in the US, Australia, and European countries, India does not have a social media research field. Looking at the growing use of Internet among the young population (9 to 16 years), the country needs research on digital media in order to make policy decisions at school level, the government level and also at the family level, feels Anne.

With a lot of research going on in several countries, those who do not have a robust valid research can always look at what’s going on in those countries, says Anne. “There is a lot of great knowledge out there that India can tap into as it develops its research fields. But India needs to do its own research too. You are massive, and you have multiple cultures. It will be fascinating to see what is happening in different parts of India in terms of digital media,” says Anne.

Anne, who was in India to address a CBSE principals’ conference on organised by Facebook in Kochi recently, says schools haven’t focused on digital literacy much yet. Explaining Internet safety, she says there are various aspects of it—physical (physical harm), psychological (social cruelty, harassment, bullying, exposure to potentially harmful content), reputation and identity (harm to identity, reputation, public image) and property (theft of intellectual, digital, financial and physical property).

Though cyberbullying, digital harassment, Internet defamation and online cruelty are a reality, Anne says several online groups are active to counter these—#iCANHELP Delete Negativity on Social Media for example. The campaign was started by a group of students in California after a fake Facebook page was created to poke fun at a teacher. The group wanted to bring a wave of change through positive messages. So, when a girl found a hate page on her online, the ‘Positive Warriors’ of #iCANHELP intervened and got the page removed, before creating a fan page for her to let her know she is not alone. #iCANHELP is now spreading and active on Facebook and Twitter.

“See, a vast majority of people in this world are good, they don’t want to see these kind of behaviour. Unfortunately, there are a few sociopaths online who ruin things for a lot of people. They are marginalising themselves, but it’s just that it hasn’t kicked in yet,” says Anne.

To protect teens, Facebook has taken care to see each account is opened using real names and authentic identities—the logic being real names make people accountable for their actions. It is against Facebook terms for anyone under the age of 13 to have an account. “We aggressively find and remove fake profiles. We prioritise reports—when people are hurt or in danger, those are highest priority,” says a Facebook spokesperson in India. The social networking site has also rolled out ‘social reporting’, which allows teens to notify a parent or a teacher about a potentially abusive content at the same time they notify Facebook.

By Sanghamitra Mazumdar

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