It would be hard to dispute the fact that the digital age and access to the internet offers children and young people unprecedented opportunities to learn, communicate and have fun. Statistics have shown the increased use of the internet by young people the world over and the increasing amounts of time they spend ‘surfing’ and being ‘online’. It is equally hard to dispute, based on a substantial and growing research, that unbridled access to the internet poses huge risk to their health, safety and well-being. The latter is of great concern in the context of children’s rights and the future development of the society at large.
J Initiative (JI) considers simply going ‘online’ present risks to young people, many of which they may be unaware of. Some may even, wittingly or otherwise, get involved in illegal activities. Research substantiating the negative impact that access to the internet has and can have on young people is sobering and cries out for those in responsible positions to implement protective, safeguarding measures.
JI also believes that uncontrolled access to the internet can cause a range of harmful physical effects including bad posture, eye strain, other diseases like: obesity, isolation, poor social skills, and a decline in social interaction, addictions and compulsions. Research even shows that continued use of the internet influences the way our brains function which is, in itself, scary!
Access to inappropriate content on-line is not always sought by young people but by simply going on-line the young are at risk of viewing images which are inappropriate in nature; pornographic and other obscene contents. Inappropriate images may pop up or be at the end of an unrequested link. Once viewed, they can be distressing and have long term psychological and emotional consequences for young people. Continued viewing of pornography may lead to sexual deviancy and/or sexual addiction. They may cause distorted and unhealthy views/values in young people about relationships and negatively influence how boys perceive girls. Equally girls may develop distorted and unhealthy perceptions of themselves and how they should behave in a relationship.
Research has shown that playing on-line games can become addictive/habitual. In addition, the potential link between viewing violent computer games and young people acting out violent and aggressive fantasies and behaviours in the real world is a concern. Internet addiction has become a recognised disorder in many countries.
Young people may also be exposed on-line to inaccurate and misleading information which they are not sufficiently discerning enough to ignore. Such information may be of a racist, sexist or hateful nature.
The contact/links that may be made on-line by adults who wish to groom young people through chat rooms, exposes them to the risk of being drawn into abusive and harmful situations. In this context, some young people may be at risk of posting personal information that can identify and locate them off-line.
Cyber stalking by on-line predators risks young people being sexually harassed and worse still, being innocently drawn into child sexual abuse in the real world. Paedophiles will often target specific individuals, posing as a young person with similar interests and hobbies in order to establish an on-line ‘friendship’. These relationships may develop over days, weeks or even years, as the paedophile gains the trust and confidence of the young person. Young people are often vulnerable and insecure so groomers are skilled at selecting and enticing them. At worse, grooming on-line leads to child sexual assault and/or prostitution.
On-line grooming by extremists groups is a growing international concern. In this context, some young minds can become easily influenced with potentially disastrous consequences leading to young people abandoning their homes and families to join fanatical causes. There is currently heightened concern about on-line grooming by extremists who use similar tactics to paedophiles.
Some young people become exposed to the malicious effects of on-line bullying (cyber-bullying) or become involved in inappropriate, anti-social or illegal behaviours while using digital technologies. Just as in the real world, groups or cliques can form on-line, and activities that start out as harmless fun, such as voicing an opposing opinion to another member of a chat room, can quickly escalate to something much more serious. Receiving email, chat or text messages that make young people feel embarrassed, upset, depressed or afraid can damage their self-esteem and pose a threat to their psychological wellbeing.
Others may get drawn to inappropriate sites where on-line users encourage self-harming and unhealthy eating disorders such as anorexia and even suicide. Some risk involvement in identity theft or participation in hate or cult websites.
Young people may also illegally download copyrighted materials such as music and films.
Some children and young people may become involved in other equally serious activities related to inappropriate commercial activity such as the buying and selling of stolen goods. They may be exposed to on-line gambling services and also to commercial and financial scams. The ease of access to on-line gambling, sites selling weapons, hacking sites, and sites providing recipes for making drugs or bombs, are of great concern. There is some evidence also to suggest that young people have become involved in the viewing, possession, making and distribution of indecent and/or child abuse/pornographic images.
Of course, all children and young people respond differently to what they see on the internet and how they use it.
In a rapidly changing and growing online environment leaving safe internet access to chance is not an option. There is an urgent need for action.
Governments should want all young people to benefit from the opportunities that access to the internet offers. They should be equally determined to ensure that children and young people are protected from the risks which using the internet also presents.
To this end, JI recommends a coherent national e-strategy/policy is needed (embedded within a child protection framework/strategy) which outlines required actions to be implemented by internet service providers (ISPs) to protect the young and vulnerable from access to inappropriate material/content. The provision of clear guidelines for action to be taken and the responsibilities of other stakeholders at the regional level, local community level and for parents/carers are also required. Co-ordination is vital to ensure that no child or young person ‘slips through the wide ranging inter- ‘net’. A piecemeal approach will not work.
Children and young people need to be protected from the many potentially harmful effects of using the internet and educated to maximise the endless opportunities it has to offer. This must be the urgent goal of all stakeholders, led by the government of Ghana, who has a vested interest and responsibility to promote and maintain the well-being, health, safely and development of all young people.