Teens need education in online privacy

Posted: February 13, 2012 at 2:00 am

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OTTAWA — Many young people remain vulnerable to online predators because they are dangerously unaware that privacy on the Internet is an illusion, experts say.

And the Internet has opened so many avenues for young people that they've become blissfully ignorant it can also be used to harm them.

Teenage girls in particular tend to be easy prey because they see the Internet as part of their living space and consider — incorrectly — whatever they do online as private, said Shaheen Shariff, an associate professor of education at McGill University, who specializes in cyber-bullying and online social networking.

The reality is that the Internet has no boundaries — once an image leaves a home computer or cellphone, it becomes universally available.

What makes teenage girls who are frequently online even more vulnerable is the fact that many are at an age where they are experimenting with their sexuality, and it's easy to take advantage of them, experts add.

They say the case of a 20-year-old Ottawa man who used threats and extortion to lure young women into performing online sexual acts reinforces the need for more Internet-usage education.

"Young people today see the Internet as part of their lived space . . . and when they send photographs, or are seduced by people to do it online, they consider that to be private space," Shariff said.

"They do not understand that what they send is available to an infinite audience and the information can be permanently damaging to them."

Michael Hoechsmann, another McGill University expert in education, media and new technology, says the Internet is not to blame.

Young people have always experimented, he says, but what has changed is that the Internet offers an avenue for mass distribution, especially for images.

And since it has become such an integral part of the culture and personality for young people, abuses are inevitable. But malicious acts are seemingly becoming more the exception than the rule.

"Increasingly, young people are living virtual lives and using the Internet as a form of expression and meeting place. The fact that many young people carry cameras with them on a daily basis has made them broadcasters," Hoechsmann said.

"When people bring whatever element of their identity to that meeting place, you're going to have some that are going to express it in a hateful manner," he added.

Shariff says that while a number of incidents involving predators has created a "moral panic" in the media, making the Internet seem "bad" for girls, the contrary is true.

The Internet, she says, remains a positive instrument for young people — but the challenge is to identify those who are vulnerable, and put in measures to protect them.

She says the problem is that "the lines between public and private" are blurred for teen girls, and it is important to get them to understand the limits of online privacy.

It is a task that requires the combined effort of parents, teachers and everyone involved in teenagers' lives.

"The advent of the Internet has posed a whole new series of challenges to our society and the youth in particular," said Alex McKay, research co-ordinator of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

"Clearly, there are some kids who are not aware of what can happen to their communications and images that are posted on the Internet. It is extremely important that schools as part of the education they provide, include information and skills that will help young people navigate the Internet safely."

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Teens need education in online privacy

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February 13th, 2012 at 2:00 am

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