DIT: Investigating real and imagined internet dangers

Services and information relevant to young people should be available online as soon as possible


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 first piece of research had fairly good news for Ireland in that it revealed that while we scored highly in terms of use but relatively low in terms of risk. But there were other important findings including a lack of content aimed specifically at 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.”

Bigger issue
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.”

He notes that the big risks being cited a few years ago were the use of the internet for illegal activity such as child pornography or the dissemination of other illegal content. “In terms of young people there was also the fear of grooming and stranger danger online. More recently cyber-bullying has become a concern.”

Hi initial research was part of the overall EU Kids Online Survey and involved 1,000 young people aged nine to 16 as well as their parents.

Among the key findings of the research is the need not necessarily to restrict young people’s use of the internet but to provide them with the skills to be able to navigate it and deal with its dangers for themselves.

“We need to provide them with the literacy skills and the critical faculties which will enable them to differentiate between information sources,” O’Neill argues.

A paucity of good quality youth-oriented content was also revealed.

“We need to ensure that there is a sufficiency of high quality support services for young people available online. Young people have a low opinion of the quality of the content which is aimed at them. Sometimes it will require public support for that content to be created or made available. If it is not available there are plenty of other people out there waiting to fill the gap in ways we may not like.”

Pan-European project
The next pan-European research project has just kicked off and is looking at how the medium has evolved over the past three years.

“The project is called Net Children Go Mobile and is looking at how the internet is now largely a mobile experience for young people”, he explains.

“This is a very different type of environment. The reality of it is that this is a brave new vista and these new devices and services with all sorts of useful functionality are unwittingly adding risks and we need to look at potential solutions.

“We hope to have the first results from this research in early 2014 but we are already seeing profound shifts. For example, it is pointless asking people how long they spend online any more – they are online all the time. It is better to ask them when are they not online. The reality of that future is already with us and this should send a clarion call to all potential content providers to make services and information which are relevant to young people available online as soon as possible so that the content vacuum doesn’t become a major problem in the future.”