SOCIETY | Jan 31, 2017

The extent to which data affects the (in)security of young people who use the Internet

The role of data analysis in understanding the risks of digital natives who are becoming increasingly social

If teens were plants, their lifeblood would be smartphones” reads a study by Telefono Azzurro e Doxakids of February 2016. And how can we deny this if, when watching our kids, we see just how immersed in technology they are? They are so attached to their mobile devices that we can almost say they have an “extra limb,” i.e. their smartphones. After all the study, which involved 600 young people aged 12 to 18 and 600 parents across Italy, emphasised that more than 2 out of 3 teens received their first phone before the age of 13 (71%).

Messaging, chatting, social networks and online games are only part of the opportunities available to young people so they can “be there”, in a world that cannot be touched but that is very close to the heart of the new generations. A thousand ways to chat with friends and classmates, so they can share homework assignments for the next day, organise a football match in the afternoon or an online game, or even send each other the Youtube link to the latest song of their favourite artist. But they often look at their mobile phone even when they do not have to communicate with anyone, maybe just to check the latest notification from Facebook or check the football results of their favourite team.

“Even registration on social sites takes place prematurely”, continues the Telefono Azzurro study. In fact,  48% of the twelve-year olds surveyed has already joined Facebook, 32% Instagram and 78% WhatsApp. And though communicating with others and sharing opinions is important, often these kids sacrifice hours of sleep to stay connected in the dim light of the room at night, giving rise to the phenomenon of vamping. 21% of twelve-year olds wakes up during the night to see if they have received any messages on their cell phone, but the percentage increases to 26.4% among 14-15 year olds.

In a recent article from Tech Economy we talked about the risks faced by children on the Internet and how they can defend themselves. Here I want to deepen the discussion by analysing the psycho-pedagogical aspect of their activities. To understand what happens in them and how they are affected by the myriad of data and information with which they come into contact during their digital life, I heard the opinion of an expert, Claudia Carbonin, Manager of the Psycho-Pedagogical Planning Office of the City of Venice, PhD in Pedagogical Sciences Department FISSPA of the University of Padua.

Does messaging impoverish the relational skills of adolescents?

The use of messaging through individual and group chats – says Claudia Carbonin – changes relations among children/adolescents right from their first entry into the cyber world with the subjective use of their first smartphone, generally at around the age of 8-10. A second dimension of relationships opens with their peers, but also with adults. This relational dimension is interconnected to the dimension they already know in their reality but which takes on new and different contours dictated by the speed and ease of use of the gadget. The use of images is immediate and their diffusion is extremely wide-reaching. The kids transform their already known relationships, and only later open up to the unknown ones, by experimenting with the potentialities of the new medium to which they have access. However they feel the effects of reality in a new and interesting weave, but where adults play a determinant role of accompaniment and decoding. What happens in the new dimension is just as real and true to the kids as that which happens in everyday life at school, only it is faster, simpler, less controlled and intangible. Its intangibility can remove limits and boundaries.

These elements may find fertile ground for expanding their soft skills, which at this age are structured and experienced during a general evolutionary step that is very delicate. In my opinion, this step can be taken only with the guidance and “protection” of significant adults who can assist the kids in the use of these tools. The abuse occurs when the children are left alone in this new “town square” full of people who behave in ways different from the familiar ways … and this happens too quickly. What is more, much like what occurs in reality, dependence is incorporated in kids who are already weak in relational skills. They use this vehicle to overcome relational difficulties – after all, normal for teens and pre-teens – without finding adults who support and accompany their developmental stages.

Naturally, no parent would put their child behind the steering wheel of a Porsche without explaining to them how to drive or the safety precautions to follow to avoid crashing, or the rules of the road to avoid harming others. Many parents put a smart phone in the hands of their children telling them “After all, you know how to use it better than I do”, as though the knowledge of an “engine” can replace everything else.

Money in the digital age

In addition to using messaging apps and social networks, kids online are looking for information of interest to young people (91%), playing video games (76%), downloading music/films, games and videos (70%). The males use e-mail and play video games more than the females, who read more e-books. And both sexes begin to shop online, perhaps with their parents’ credit card. Leaving aside the aspect of “what” they will buy, an important aspect is the use of money in the digital age and online transactions. Bitcoin will become increasingly popular as a virtual currency..

But what will it mean for a teenager to buy with a virtual currency such as Bitcoin without being able to see a tangible exchange of money? How is it possible for a parent to prevent online gambling and the “accidental” spending of huge sums of money by children who surf the Internet?

Kids – continues Claudia Carbonin – fully understand the concept of money at around the age of 8-9. The ability to assign a value to objects in economic terms comes even later. Clearly the many possibilities that this virtual currency has introduced at all levels (the first video games popular among children come to mind as well as purchases via apps) require the strict supervision of adults. Nor can the concept of virtual purchasing be explained to a 6-7 year old when, by clicking on Mother’s phone, he/she can buy 10,000 nuggets needed to reach the next level of his/her favourite video game.

Simply, once again, adults need to know and activate all the filters and blocking systems that today are fortunately available to prevent these erroneous purchases. Starting at the age of 8-9, parents should use old hard cash to introduce kids to the idea of economic value. Today this value is exchanged not only physically but virtually. The bottom line is that in their daily experience children often see people withdraw money from the ATM for groceries. At some point they can be taught that in order to have the money to eat, you cannot just go to the ATM and ask for the money you want …you have to earn it with hard work and put it in the bank for safekeeping. Then, of course, the most authoritative example of a conscious use of money is a characteristic of education which is useful, as it has always been.

Academic performance

The Monitoring Centre of the Italian Society of Paediatricians (SIP) monitored the habits and lifestyles of a sample of kids attending the eighth grade from the years 1997 to 2013 to study the relationship between the Internet and school performance. Though 52.6% of respondents were good at school, the figure plummeted to 36.5% among those who admitted to staying connected to the Internet for more than 3 hours a day. As was inevitable and foreseeable, the percentage of “baby surfers” has increased steadily over the years, albeit their contact with the Internet walks hand in hand with other distractions and the new stressors of our time. All of these together affect children and their academic performance.

Nowadays the children receive on average 167 messages a day (including SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger and other Instant Messaging apps), even during class. A compulsive disorder that can affect their school performance. The latest American research published in “Psychology of Popular Media Culture” would confirm this statement. Also referred to as a “multidimensional” syndrome, it presents with behavioural and cognitive symptoms, says the research, that lead to reduced performance in academic and professional environments. In any case, girl children pay the highest price. Partially because they are better at school, on average, and partially because they let themselves get emotionally involved by the messages. The resulting anxiety impairs their performance. About 4% of American boys are considered “problematic” users of the Internet.

Pornography

Digital communications that take place between boys also encourage mutual knowledge and the Internet becomes more influential in the first relationships of teenage couples. Internet frequently affects the duration of the relationship. In fact social networks also lead to harsh arguments. Fifteen percent of respondents have friends who met their partners online, 27% have friends who have broken up with a message through a social network, while 17% have friends who sneak to read messages on their partner’s cell phone. Three percent know girls whose boyfriend threatens to publish private photos or videos online. Among the dangerous factors are the increase in the sharing of sexually explicit pics (11% of 14-15 year olds knows someone who has engaged insexting) and know of the opportunity for boys to watch pornography. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they have visited pornographic sites “very” assiduously, while  51% did so “fairly” assiduously. A study by Intel Security from 2015 interviewed 8,026 pre-adolescents and adolescents between 8 and 16 years old and compared them with the concerns of 9,017 parents. It was found that more than one teenager out of 10 said they had actually met someone in real life whom they had encountered for the first time online, and as much as 19% of young people have a desire to meet such a person. In addition, 46% of young people said they had seen pornography inadvertently, while 32% say they had done so intentionally.

The mass spread of pornography is a relatively new phenomenon for which we are not prepared, and its consequences may have significant effects, not so much on adults, but on the development of children and adolescents. According to an article in “State of Mind  –  il giornale delle scienze psicologiche” [State of Mind  –  the Journal of Psychological Sciences] an assiduous viewing of pornography “reverts the grey matter to the striatum, in the brain, which is responsible for cognitive functions and our ability to feel satisfaction and make decisions. These children become confused, indecisive and desensitised. At that point more and more massive doses of erotic stimuli become necessary to get excited, and there is a preference for the format of virtual porn online at the expense of real and bodily arousal.” In young people, the defence mechanisms of the brain and the nervous system are not yet fully developed, “and any given experience need not be particularly intense to be traumatic and disturbing to them.” The survey of Telefono Azzurro precisely points to a recent British study (Kuhn & Gallinat 2014) showing that 28% of 11-18 year olds believe that pornography is transforming the minds of young people and influencing the way they understand relationships. Here is the example given to demonstrate this: English girls think they have to behave like “pornostars” to please boys, while boys confront sexuality and sexual intercourse with more anxiety.

Can pornography, therefore, make children less reactive in the face of potential proposals from paedophiles?

The potentialities made accessible by this medium says Carbonin are very wide-reaching, and the one that is mentioned most often, with a sense of worry, is pornography, since children no longer have to buy Playboy on the sly but can visit all the sites with a click of the mouse. This environment uses “normal” curiosity about sex, but a curiosity that various economic-cultural factors have rendered precocious. The widespread sexual stimuli we are literally inundated by daily poses a higher risk to children, once again associated with the solitude of the kids who search for images of sex, but also images of violence or transgression in general. Virtual predators, much like real ones, approach boys and girls who they see as or presume as being lonely and unsupervised. Such predators attempt to satisfy the child’s curiosity through channels without authoritative relational filters.

Cyberbullyin

As the image shows, teenagers are plagued by numerous fears regarding the Internet, but these fears diminish as they grow up. The greatest perceived risk is to encounter individuals who are using a fake identity (54%), those who contact them to ask for their personal information (50%), adults who ask for sexual favours (47%), sometimes in exchange for a mobile phone top-up (39%), those who might put the child’s pictures online (41%). But they are also afraid of being mocked and humiliated by their schoolmates (32%) or of having to suffer any form of bullying.

Bullying is a phenomenon that manifests itself in various ways, but precisely with new technologies, the way it is manifested has evolved and made its way through media on the Internet. This is why today people talk about cyberbullying. In fact, cyberbullying is considered an evolution of traditional bullying. Nonetheless, while the two share certain characteristics, they differ in many ways. Generally speaking, bullying involves aggression that is intentional and exercised by an aggressor, thereby creating an asymmetry of power, wielded over time and causing the victim to suffer terribly.

The term cyberbullying is defined as “intentional and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers and other electronic devices”.The definition just given is very simple but at the same time it contains the key elements regarding this problem, thus affording it considerable credence. To fully understand the definition, it is important to dwell on a few key elements expressed therein:

  • intentional: the offensive behaviour must be deliberate, not accidental;
  • repeated: this type of bullying reflects a behaviour pattern, in other words it is not occasional or isolated.
  • damage: the victim must feel that the damage has been inflicted;
  • electronic devices: computers, mobile phones, games; this is what distinguishes cyberbullying from traditional bullying (Hinduja – Patchin, 2009, 5).

These electronic tools facilitate the spread of cyberbullying because it is possible to spread messages, information or videos with the intent to attack the dignity of others. The main objective is to harass, harm, devalue and despise an individual or group of persons (Petrone-Troiano, 2008, 82). A further aspect that is paramount in distinguishing between cyberbullying and traditional bullying is that, while in traditional bullying the victims feel safe once they are back home and their home protected them, the phenomenon of cyberbullying is generated by means of electronic instruments, sometimes desktops but more often mobile phones (smartphones), allowing the bullies to infiltrate the victims’ homes, and materialise at any time and from any angle of their lives to persecute them.

It is noteworthy that cyberbullying has made bullying characteristics more severe. In fact, “cyberbullies” are often anonymous, and that which they spread on the network can reach every corner of the earth. Furthermore their anonymity, or at least the barrier provided by distance, allows cyberbullies to commit acts they would not dare commit in real life. Cyberbullies take advantage of the presumed invisibility (but each computer leaves “footprints” that can be identified by the police) through which they intend to express their power and domination. There are also processes of depersonalisation of the attackers, who often represent themselves to the victim as an Avatar.

What are the factors that determine the typical features of cyberbullying? And how is it manifested in the virtual world, not just the world of young internauts?

Cyberbullying has lately become the most pernicious and worrisome danger on the Internet  – and for good reason – because it has the most serious and egregious consequences for the victims who, in some cases, in the face of such aggression, have felt crushed to point of seeing death as the only way out” – says Claudia Carbonin.

“I must say that from my observation point (primary school children) it is astonishing how difficult it has become for these kids to grasp the difference between real and fantasy, tangible and intangible, concrete and abstract. It almost seems that what you do not see does not exist, but also that not “showing your face” allows to push, and sometines break, the boundaries that in direct relationships are known and acquired. Recently I made an attempt to translate to fifth graders the behaviours they adopted in the brand new class chat:  while they all  agreed that slamming the door in the face of a classmate to exclude her/him would be an extreme action that would cause bad feeling in that classmate, and that they would do it only if they were very angry, it was not considered the same to exclude that classmate from a WhatsApp group of friends. It was not considered an equally strong action that could hurt the companion because it was done in a NON-place, and a NON-time. The person who committed the act (by a click  in the group) was very far from the classmate in question, could not see and hear him/her. However, in actual fact the click had a much stronger impact than a door slammed in his/her face: exclusion from the group. 

It is true that this happens on social sites among adults and children alike: words and statements that the person would not have the courage to say in real life, find space in this virtual dimension which is often perceived as UNREAL but which has REAL consequences that are more personal and intimate. On the one hand I can think of all the community psychology studies (Gustave Le Bon, Psicologia delle folle, 1927) which observed the group/herd had the function of annihilating the normative and moral barriers of the individual belonging to that group. This allowed the individual to put in practice behaviours, even ferocious behaviours, without considering him/herself directly responsible; one the other hand DIGITAL ILLITERACY of today’s adults must be taken into account, but data in this regard is probably lacking. Moreover, from my observation of parents of pre-teens and teens, therefore parents who are for the most part 40-50 years old, I noticed that only those having a high cultural professional level, in addition to having specific Internet savvy (maybe even for work), have the tools for critical and conscious reflection on digital phenomena (cf. from falsehoods to cyberbullying). This leads me to say that only the school can and should take on the serious task of educating adults, children and teens about this new language, temporal and relational dimension in which we are totally immersed. This would allow a development of the critical skills needed for a mindful use of these tools, the potentialities they provide and the boundaries that must be set for a regulated and civil coexistence.

To better understand the phenomena illustrated in the above analysis, it seems interesting at this point to summarise the requests for help received by the Telefono Azzurro from April 1 to December 31, 2015 on its free hotline 19696 and a chatline on their website www. azzurro.it/chat. Nearly 1 out of 3 requests concerns the phenomenon of cyberbullying (30%), more than 1 in 6 involves issues related to online sex (16%) and nearly 1 out of 4 consists of a request for advice regarding information about the Web (24%). The worrying factor is that very often parents are unaware of the phenomena associated with sexual problems. In fact the term sexting is only known by 29% of the parents surveyed,  sextortion by 20% and grooming only by 13%.

From the above we can conclude that

of this world based on “data”, the positive thing about the Internet for teens is that it opens doors and new perspectives for them, thanks to which they are connected to various educational facilities worldwide. This enables a cross-cultural comparison, both virtual and real, also opening new outlets and new ideas for programmes and twinning. This information also leads to fostering international mobility as well as cultural and social exchanges. The children feel more like citizens of the world, interconnected and always in connection with those whom they love. In addition, they have access to everything they need to achieve their professional goals. But in contrast, the risk of the digital world, and there are many, can be reduced only with the guidance of parents and/or educators who are well-prepared and sensitive to these problems. In this way they can “navigate” to their destinations safely.

Antonio Sagliocca