DIT: Investigating real and imagined internet dangers
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Dr Brian O’Neill: “We need toprovide them with the literacy skills and the critical faculties which will enable them to differentiate between information sources”
Every generation has its moral scare. There was a time when Cliff Richard was considered a threat to public decency and President de Valera issued grave warnings to the Irish people about the impact which RTÉ television could have on society.
The internet is different though. Never before has a medium grown from nothingness to near universal access in so short a period. This unfettered growth is mirrored by a lack of regulation and it is this latter dimension which gives rise to fear bordering on panic at times in relation to the impact the web and its social media offspring are having on young people.
But while many of these fears are grounded in reality others are completely baseless and are the product of fevered imaginations and urban legend.
“The problem is the lack of concrete evidence available”, says DIT’s head of media school Dr Brian O’Neill. “We were working on assumptions for many years and we needed good solid research on it.”
O’Neill was involved in the first pan-European research project on internet usage by young people which reported in 2011 and is now embarking on a second project which will look at mobile internet and social media usage by young people.
“The internet is only about 15 years old in terms of mature public access,” says O’Neill. “Ireland was an early mover in preparing for an information society and the education system geared up for it. Very good things were put in place back in the late 1990s but what was needed was real evidence of how the new communications technology was being adopted and used in everyday life and in particular how young people were using it.”
Work started on addressing the potential dangers of the new medium back in the 1990s. “The European Commission Safer Internet Programme has been in existence for about 15 years and put in place safety measures for the new environment, particularly for vulnerable groups such as young people. But these were largely responses to moral panics and potential risks rather than any proven dangers.
“We needed the evidence to support the actions. What we needed to do was see if we were availing of the opportunities that existed and protecting ourselves from the risks but without the research evidence we were working blind.”
While the overall lack of research was a problem there was an even bigger issue regarding young people. “Media research rarely touches on the youth audience,” says O’Neill. “There was a big challenge to address our knowledge gap in terms of young people’s internet usage patterns. And what allowed us to take this on was the heightened public concern about the risks posed by the internet.”