Feature

Canadian Children and Youth Not Always Responsible Online

Catharine Swift

On October 24, 2001, MNet released a second phase of findings from Young Canadians in a Wired World: The Students' View , which examined the extent to which Canadian youth are putting themselves at risk as they explore the Internet, often with little or no supervision.

The Media Awareness Network (MNet) has known for a long time that Canadian kids are among the biggest users of media, particularly the Internet. Last year MNet conducted a survey of 5,600 students aged 9 to 17 in schools across the country, and in June released findings that focused on the gap between parents’ perceptions of their kids’ online activities and what young people say they are actually doing online.

On October 24, 2001, MNet released a second phase of findings from Young Canadians in a Wired World: The Students' View, which examined the extent to which Canadian youth are putting themselves at risk as they explore the Internet, often with little or no supervision.

This latest analysis focuses on specific areas of risky activity — such as exploring private and adult-only chat rooms, meeting Internet acquaintances in person, being exposed to sexually explicit and hateful material and sharing personal information.

The findings reveal the extent to which kids have claimed the Internet as their own world, separate from their parents’ reach and knowledge. They may be technically savvy, but are they safe, wise and responsible Internet users? Not always.

Nearly six in ten Canadian kids use chat rooms, and twice as many secondary students as elementary students enjoy chatting online. The survey identified two high-risk chat behaviours — going into private chat areas to engage in one-on-one conversations, and visiting adult chat rooms which are designated for adults 18 years and over. Of the 56 percent of kids who use chat rooms, one-third visit adult chat areas that often contain conversations of a sexually explicit nature. The likelihood of this happening increases with age, but MNet sees a special problem with younger children, who often lack the judgement to safeguard themselves in these situations. Anne Taylor, Co-Director of MNet explains, “During focus group research, we asked 12 and 13-year-old girls if they’d give their personal information to someone in a chat room. They replied that they would but only if they trusted that person. When we probed how long it might take to develop that trust, answers ranged anywhere from 15 minutes to two weeks!”

Eighty-five percent of the children and youth who go into adult chat rooms and private areas of chat reveal that they are at home, but unsupervised, when they use the Internet. Eighty-two percent of this group say they have no household rule relating to this practice (this compares to 39 percent of the overall sample who say they do have a rule about talking to strangers in chat rooms).

A key area of potential risk relates to kids meeting Internet friends in person. One-quarter of all the young Internet users surveyed have been asked by someone they’ve met online to get together face-to-face. Approximately 15 percent (or 839 respondents of the total sample of nearly 6,000) indicated that they’d taken that next step and actually gone to meet an Internet acquaintance. Of those 800-odd students, 129 went by themselves to meet their Internet friend. Only six percent asked a parent or other adult to accompany them.

MNet acknowledges that these in-person meetings cover a wide range of scenarios and that some of these meetings were well supervised and positive. However, 100 of these young people characterized their meeting as a “bad experience.” In response to an open-ended question, kids described these “bad experiences” in their own words, ranging from “didn’t like the person” to person was “fat”, “ugly”, “stupid” or “mean.” Some of the more serious responses, which came from 18 young people, included “person wanted/or made sexual contact” “person used vulgar/ sexual language” and “person was violent.” MNet hopes to broaden this initial research by further study into these troubling and potentially dangerous behaviours.

The survey probed the extent to which children and young people are exposed to pornography. Almost a quarter of students have received pornography from someone they have met online, and over half have received pornographic junk mail. The vast majority (78 percent) of recipients did not tell their parents.

While a quarter of young people say they look online for pornography, 53 percent say they ended up on a porn site by accident. Most say they got to the site by doing a search for something else, or typing in the wrong address. Others got to the site by clicking on a link given to them in a chat room or sent by e-mail. Only 24 percent told a teacher or parent about it. The kids’ replies indicate that they rely on their friends or their own ingenuity, rather than adults, when dealing with sexually explicit material.

Almost half of students at the secondary level say someone has made unwanted sexual comments to them on the Internet. Girls are more likely than boys to have received these kinds of comments.

Over a quarter of respondents of all ages report encountering hateful comments online and 16 percent of young internet users say they have posted comments themselves that were hateful toward a person or group of people.

The survey also gave clear evidence that Canadian children and youth don’t understand the importance of safeguarding their personal information. Almost one-quarter of the youth surveyed indicated they would give out both their name and address to win a prize in an online contest. Most said they’ve got their own e-mail account, the majority of which are free Web-based accounts. When registering for these free accounts, 86 percent of youth indicated their gender, 68 percent provided their real name, 29 percent their address and 20 percent their phone number.

“We are concerned about the ways that Canadian children and youth are putting themselves at risk,” says Jan D’Arcy, Co-Director of MNet. “At the same time, we’re heartened by the fact that parental involvement, supervision and rules around the Internet appear to have an impact on how kids conduct themselves online.”

The findings gleaned from the survey will play an integral role in shaping public policy on safe, wise and responsible Internet use in Canada. The data will also enhance the development of MNet resources such as the national Web Awareness Canada program and further work with active and committed partners in the public library, education and community sectors.

Funding for this study was provided by the Government of Canada, and data coilection and analysis were conducted by Environics Research Group. For more information on the surveys cited in this article go to http://www.media-awareness.ca/ eng/webaware/netsurvey/index.htm.
To contact MNet write to info@media~awareness.ca

The Media Awareness Network (MNet) is a not-for-profit education organization whose mandate is to support and encourage media and information literacy in Canadian homes, schools and communities. MNet hosts a large Web site ( www.media- awareness.ca) and licenses professional development workshops for teachers to raise awareness about internet issues that are emerging as children and young people go online.

MNet is sponsored by Bell Canada, Rogers, CanWest Global, BCE, CTV, CHUM Television, A & E Television Networks, AOL Canada and the Government of Canada

Catharine Swift is an independent consultant, and cheerleader for MNet, living in Ottawa.