Internet and Young People: Risks and Opportunities

The 2008 World Internet Project survey of 13 countries revealed that, among youth 12-years to 14-years, 88% in the United States used the Internet, and the percentage of Internet users in this age group was 100% in the United Kingdom, 98% in Israel, 95% in Canada, and over 70% in Singapore. As such, widespread Internet use represents both risks and opportunities for young people. 

The negative aspects of the Internet include Internet addiction as well as online risks such as exposure to sexually explicit material and online victimization including harassment or cyber bullying and sexual solicitation. However, the Internet also has many positive aspects and can be used to enhance learning and empowerment in young adults. 

Excessive Internet use is emerging as one of the more negative aspects of young people’s online activities. In the literature, such extreme use is often synonymous with the term ‘compulsive Internet use’. Compulsive Internet use, or internet addiction, has been defined as the use of the Internet to escape from negative feelings, continued use of the Internet despite the desire to stop, experience of unpleasant emotions when Internet use is impossible, thinking about the Internet constantly, and the experience of any other conflicts or self-conflicts due to Internet use.

There is evidence that Internet addiction has a negative effect on academic performance (a drop in grades), family relations (having to hide their excessive Internet use from parents), physical health (sleep deprivation due to long hours of Internet use), mental health (depression), and personal finances (the cost of accrued Internet expenses). Interactive communication applications such as chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mail, and online games have most commonly been associated with Internet addiction among young people.

Of particular concern is the potential for youth to become addicted to online gaming, which is a growing industry, and is estimated to reach $19 billion in revenue by 2013. In a study of the impact of online-game playing on the gamers’ life satisfaction respecting various personality dimensions, research professionals have recently reported that neuroticism in gamers has exerted a negative influence on a significant percentage of the control group. Neuroticism also has a significant negative influence on subjective well being in teen gamers. A negative relationship between web surfing frequency and life satisfaction has also been found.

Despite the risks, the Internet can also be a positive tool for student learning as well as youth empowerment and well being. There is evidence that computer and Internet use improves test scores, history chronology learning, and motivation to learn. Although promising, the benefits are not without limits. Older students seem to benefit more from online aids than younger students, and the very youngest of students actually do worse in technological formats compared with traditional paper and pencil formats.

There exist incredible opportunities for learning, social connection, and individual entertainment and enhancement in a wide variety of forms. Indeed, recent evidence indicates that 45 percent of users in the United States say that the Internet has played a crucial or important role in at least one major decision in their lives in the last two years, such as attaining additional career training, helping themselves or someone else with a major illness or medical condition, or making a major investment or financial decision.

Among adolescents, the communication applications of the Internet such as instant messages, blogs, and social networking sites (e.g., Instagram, Facebook, etc.) are especially popular. As the Internet has become pervasive in the lives of young people, their online activities and interactions have become the focus of intense research.

There is also evidence that the Internet may help to empower young people, particularly those in disadvantaged circumstances. Researchers have recently found out that hearing-impaired youth are taking advantage of the heavily visual medium of the Internet to communicate, and doing so has had a positive effect on their well being. A recent review concluded that adolescents are primarily using the Internet to reinforce offline relationships; adolescents also seem to use online forums such as homepages and blogs to gain positive feelings of mastery and competence. In addition to this, participation in the e-PAR program has allowed youth to use the Internet and other technologies (photography and video cameras, music production software) to document their lives and create awareness of health and community issues such as drug-use, violence, discrimination, and homelessness.

Balancing risks with opportunities is the key to minimizing the potential hazards that accompany further exploitation of the Internet and its use by young people. The years that are to come will reveal how successful these efforts will turn out to be.

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