Teenagers and the internet

The possible effects of excessive use of internet has sparked a debate between different schools of thought: those who believe that moderate internet use is unlikely to harm teenagers’ brains and those who claim that heavy web use could be mentally and physically harmful to children

As a parent, I cannot but express my concern at the findings of a number of published studies on computer use among adolescents. I do not doubt the usefulness of the internet but I do worry about cyber bullying and reports such as that published by Childine in the UK.

This free counseling service for children and young people has noted a sharp increase in self-harm over the last few years.   In 2013, Childline experienced a 41% increase in reports of self-harm and a 33% increase of children reporting suicidal thoughts over the previous year. Headlines are meant to shock and these reports have done just that.

The widespread use of the Internet is definitely not breaking news, neither is the fact that most youngsters are more proficient at it than grown-ups. Recently however, the possible effects of excessive use of internet has sparked a debate between different schools of thought: those who believe that moderate internet use is unlikely to harm teenagers’ brains and those who claim that heavy web use could be mentally and physically harmful to children.

In actual fact, there is no conclusive evidence to support either hypothesis, and that is why more studies and reports are necessary to differentiate between concerns and benefits of internet use.

Our digital challenge is how we use technology and not whether we use it or not. In the Maltese Islands, internet accessibility is growing. According to a 2012 survey, conducted by the Malta Communications Authority, 98% of students in Primary and Secondary Schools have an internet-connected computer at home.

This survey, conducted among students from State, Church and Independent schools also shows that 41% of primary school students and 90% of secondary school students have a Facebook profile. That was two years ago. The percentages have undoubtedly grown since then.

Filtering internet access is possible but it’s much better to teach our children how to swim than just build a wall around the sea. Projects such as ‘BeSmartOnline’, managed by the MCA and partly funded by the European Union, help provide awareness on safer internet use for our kids. Private sector initiatives, such as ‘ibrowsesafely.com.mt’, also encourages students to be more conscious of the importance of staying safe while immersing in the digital world.

Nevertheless, our kids often access services that are unsuitable for them. This includes a number of games that are not appropriate for some children and the widespread usage of social media, which seems to be driving youngsters to internet addiction.

This is an international phenomenon and, just to mention one example, half of secondary school students in the UK admit to taking a laptop or tablet to bed with them. Recently I met 50 secondary school students who told me that they spend their time after school doing homework, attending private lessons and surfing the web for hours. Only four out of these 50 did any regular physical exercise. 

This is one of the issues that is being strongly debated. Some claim that extended and prolonged exposure to the internet is harmful to the development of the adolescent brain. Over 130 studies have been reviewed. It has been suggested that teenagers involved in heavy internet use had developed a recognised psychological problem associated with prolonged exposure to the internet. The fact is that mental health is deteriorating among adolescents, although it is not fair to blame the web for this worrying trend.

The rise of the digital age has had an impact on our idea of home and family life. One or two generations ago, teenagers grew up protected from the harshness of adult life until maturity, now the web has blown this boundary apart.

There are many positive benefits of internet use. Many students and youngsters use the web for educational research and social networking. Kathyrn Mills, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London says that “moderate internet use with an emphasis on information gathering is actually related to really positive academic outcomes”. She says that students are more conscious of where to find the information they need and that this is one example of a change in cognitive skills.

Internet is here to stay. In Malta, there are more mobile phones than people living on our islands. Service providers are upgrading their services and the Wi-Fi hotspots in several zones around the island are providing easier accessibility on a national level. Very soon, schoolchildren in Year 4 in all State, Church and Independent schools shall be provided with a tablet in the One Tablet per Child initiative.

Together with educators, parents or guardians, we must make sure that we provide the right environment for a safe use of the web which will help our children exploit the immense opportunities provided by the digital age. Our challenge is making sure that the internet is used wisely and fruitfully.

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