I sent my first e-mail message when I was 17. I discovered Google 5 years later. Today, I use the Internet all the time.
But when I was a kid, I never imagined that I would one day send messages using a computer that fits in my backpack. Your experience is probably very different.
“Kids are now living in a virtual world,” says psychologist Patricia Greenfield. She’s director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Scientists have begun to wonder whether the Internet is good or bad for kids.
Nearly 90 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds in the United States use the Internet, according to one recent survey, and about half of these kids use it every day. They visit chat rooms and send e-mails. They post profiles on MySpace and go to Web sites to get information for homework.
As digital technology dominates the lives of young people more and more, scientists have begun to wonder: Is the Internet good or bad for kids?
“It’s impossible to answer that question because the Internet is so many things,” says Justine Cassell, a media expert at Northwestern University. “It’s networked computer games and news about politics and instant messaging and e-mails to your grandmother.”
To add to the uncertainty, more and more studies show that the online world can be helpful in some ways and dangerous in others. It can be both an educational resource, for example, and a hiding place for kidnappers.
“The bottom line,” Greenfield says, “is that the Internet is a very powerful tool that can be used equally for good or bad.”
Reasons to worry
Adults have plenty of reasons to worry about kids’ Internet use. In chat rooms, for instance, it’s easy to lie, and kids can get sucked into dangerous situations.
In chat rooms, kids can be sucked into dangerous situations.
“In my first foray to a teen chat room, I started getting IMs [instant messages], and pretty much all of them were attempted cyber-pickups,” Greenfield says. “I’m old enough to be their grandmother!”
In searching for and visiting Web sites, kids can stumble across words and pictures that they may not be prepared for.
To help prevent that situation, in 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools and libraries to block offensive and obscene Web sites.
“That made me realize that this is a serious issue,” says education professor Zheng Yan of the University at Albany, New York. He began to do research on the problem. “I found that it’s not so simple” to solve, he now says.
More than anything, Yan’s research has pointed out how confusing the Internet can be for children, even when they think they know how it works.
“Many kids think the Internet is very simple,” Yan says. But in fact, “the Internet is one of the most complicated entities in the universe,” he cautions.
Without guidance from adults, young kids usually don’t know much about how the Internet works.
To find out how much kids know about the technology, Yan interviewed more than 300 students in grades four through eight.
Some of the youngest students thought that the Internet is simply an icon on the screen. Others thought it existed within the computer itself.
It often wasn’t until age 10 or 11 that kids realized that the Internet is a network of millions of computers. It took another 2 or 3 years for them to understand, for example, that a stranger could see what they’d posted.
Understanding the technology helps kids understand how dangerous the Web can be, Yan says. It’s not enough simply to block obscene Web sites on school and library computers or to limit the number of hours kids spend online. It’s also important to teach children about the Internet and how it works. This way, kids can learn to protect themselves.
Making a difference
Learning about the Internet can also give young people the power to make a difference, Cassell says. With colleagues, she studied the Junior Summit, an online forum that originally took place in 1998.
The Internet is a vast resource, providing all sorts of information. But not all of that information is reliable or trustworthy.
As part of the summit, more than 3,000 9-to-16-year-olds from 169 countries communicated through the Web. Then, they elected 100 representatives to spend a week in Boston. The participants met professors and industry leaders. The kids presented ideas to world leaders and the press about how to improve the lives of young people around the world.
“As I was designing the community and helping young people become involved, I became interested in what effect this community would have on their lives,” Cassell says. “I didn’t know what to expect because there hadn’t been anything like this in the past.”
After analyzing thousands of messages, her group found that the elected leaders posted more and longer messages than other kids did. They used “we” more than “I.” And they wrote more about the summit than they did about themselves.
These results, Cassell says, show that the Internet can help kids become involved in a community and learn how to pursue common goals as part of a group.
“They had excellent ideas,” she says, “and the ability to carry them out.”
As you grow up, new fashions, video games, and technologies will continue to challenge your imagination. Yet even as the world changes, kids will keep going to playgrounds, doing homework, and hanging out with friends.
Learning about new technologies helps make them more useful and less risky.
“Every era of childhood is both different from the previous one and also fundamentally the same,” Cassell says.
Learning about new technologies, however, can go a long way toward making them more useful and less risky.