Teenagers are increasingly spending more time on the internet, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic where social activities and gatherings are highly discouraged.
Internet use and online communication can be healthy ways of keeping in contact with others, however it can also lead to other issues such as peer pressure, sexting and body shaming. This article is based on interviews carried out by the Malta Personal and Social Development Association (MPSDA) with three experts on this matter and has the aim of shedding light on how children and adolescents are using the internet and what repercussions they could face.
Stephen Camilleri is a PSCD Educational Officer, Timothy Zammit is the Cybercrime Unit Police Inspector and Lorleen Farrugia who has carried out her doctorate research on children’s understanding of online risks.
It can be said that teenagers are increasingly growing up in the Internet Age where daily online communication is the norm and activities in which they participate in, such as gaming, are also infused with online communication.
Moreover, as Inspector Timothy Zammit and Dr Lorleen Farrugia explained, the use of technology and online communication enables adolescents to gain independence; connect with their peers; have fun; explore their identities; and establish connections and engage in activities that they think their parents are unable to supervise properly.
Due to the current pandemic, online connectivity and communication has been replacing face-to-face contact more than ever before. Lorleen Farrugia also maintained that we should not only consider the amount of time that adolescents spend on the internet, but how their online habits interact with and relate to their general well-being and other so called ‘offline’ activities.
Sexting is one of the issues that people are facing when communicating online. Inspector Timothy Zammit explained this concept as ‘using technology for the purpose of sexual interaction’. This can include texts, photos and videos. According to an EU Kids online survey quoted by Stephen Camilleri and carried out in Malta in 2019, 26% of the respondents claimed that they had received explicit messages, with those within the 15-16 age bracket more likely to receive such messages. The survey was carried out with 1,234 students aged 9 to 16.
Sexting has increased across all ages due to the accessibility of internet and smart devices. Moreover, the need to seek attention, reaffirmation, flirting, expressing one’s sexuality, being pressured or coerced has also increased this occurrence.
This explicit content can also be shared without the knowledge or consent of the author. In fact, Dr Farrugia explained how research proves that the number of young people who receive sexts is higher than those who send them. This indicates that in quite a number of instances, these messages are distributed and shared with a wider audience than what was originally intended. The explicit content can therefore be shared without one’s knowledge or consent of the person sending the pictures or clips.
As Inspector Timothy Zammit stated, this type of interaction requires courage or “guts” to approach someone face-to-face and interact in such a way. Mobile phones and smart devices are now making it easier and more accessible to sext, so one can assume that these instances will increase since people can hide behind a keyboard and overcome the fear of embarrassment. Another issue is that fear of rejection is likely diminished. The unlimited data plans and the fact that parents or guardians are less aware of what young people are doing online are two issues that Dr Farrugia highlighted as contributing to an increase in sexting. This can lead to situations of cyber bullying amongst other things, but instead of restricting internet access, she claimed that a discussion about online sexual communication needs to be part of the discussions that both guardians and educators have about children’s sexual development.
Inspector Timothy Zammit highlighted the fact that, since parents may not necessarily be technologically oriented, they might not be supervising appropriately. When it comes to sexting, one of the biggest concerns is when the subject of a photo or a video loses control of the material once it is shared to others or used in inappropriate ways. Moreover, when it is done through face-to-face interaction like in previous times, it would have been temporary, whilst a photo or video is a permanent record of the interaction, which can also be referred to as the digital footprint.
Sexting also carries sanctions such as prison sentences and fines, when these cases are reported. All cases need to be examined individually but for example revenge porn, which refers to the sharing of private sexual material without the consent of the person concerned, has been recently introduced in the Criminal Code and carries up to five years imprisonment and/or a fine of €8,000. On the other hand, the production, sharing or possession of indecent material involving minors is a separate offence and can carry a five-year imprisonment sentence. Moreover, grooming is another criminal offence punishable by up to six years imprisonment. In both cases, the sentence can be increased accordingly.
We have also discussed the relationship between sexting and body shaming with the three experts on this matter.
Media pressures are everywhere nowadays and adolescents who might not conform to these images might be judged by others. Insp. Timothy Zammit explained how body shaming can sometimes take place once private material starts going viral and people involved are usually at their most vulnerable and may be further victimised through this body shaming.
Therefore, as Camilleri and Farrugia explained, it is important that adolescents are taught how to view the media with a critical eye and reflect on one’s positive aspects of their body and character. It is also important to be aware that influencers and marketers are paid to present content which most of the time is edited, therefore they should not base body standards and judge oneself and others based on these unrealistic images. Camilleri also stressed that children and adolescents are taught at school how to share their feelings when they feel undesired or dissatisfied with themselves. They should also be aware on where to seek assistance, especially since body shaming may lead to eating disorders.
BeSmartOnline! have various safety tips for children, educators and parents which can increase awareness. This project is an education based national initiative which caters for various stakeholders with the aim of establishing safer Internet use in Malta. It is also implemented in the PSCD subject through various learning objectives in the curriculum across all years.
BeSmartOnline! also provides excellent resources such as posters and video clips about issues related to safe Internet use, including stereotypes, acceptable communication online, sharing of information online, sexting and pornography. These are very good tools which can be used by teachers to discuss various situations and their possible consequences and provide a safe place during PSCD lessons where students can identify and practice the skills needed to deal with such situations.
Tips for parents/guardians
· It is imperative that parents/guardians teach children and adolescents to look at the media with a critical eye.
· Invest in the relationship with their children from a very young age, otherwise, they would not feel comfortable in opening up about what they are going through during puberty, will seek more privacy and turn to other sources of information such as the internet and friends, which are not always reliable.
· Set boundaries and monitor children’s and young people’s online access as it would be too late trying to restrict access when they are older.
· Teach children and adolescents about the consequences of engaging in sexting as opposed to just saying ‘do not do that’.
· Set off a good example on how to use the internet critically and creatively, since children follow by example.
· Stress the importance of good communication which is understanding and non-judgemental.
Students learn about online safety at school through various topics. Due to the smaller number of students and more personal attention, during PSCD lessons, these topics are more catered for. Topics such as sexting, sharing of personal information online, digital footprint, media stereotypes, protecting the privacy of others and risky online relationships are all directly related to the proper use of digital tools.
Students are also taught skills such as critical thinking, assertiveness, self-esteem, asking for help, communication and empathy which can all aid adopting good behaviour practices both in their offline and online relationships and experiences. Effective and preventive education, open communication with parents or guardians, initiatives and campaigns such as BeSmartOnline! and the necessary skills to stand up for oneself and seek help where needed will therefore enable children and adolescents to make informed decisions and practice safer Internet use.