Published:


Rob Leitch 
is a secondary school teacher from Sidcup, Bexley. Follow Rob on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-11 at 19.11.48We
are often told that history will reflect on our period of time as being the
‘digital age’ – a time of rapid and remarkable technological brilliance. A quick glance around your home will probably provide substantial
evidence of this claim. After all, you are likely to be reading this article on
a tablet, smart phone, or at least an old fashioned PC.

Central
to the digital age claim is, of course, the rise of the internet. The World
Wide Web is the biggest symbol of rapid globalisation. Over the past 20
years, those living in the West have seen the internet integrated into almost every
fragment of daily life, from fulfilling retail needs to booking holidays, from
face time to accessing shares in global markets instantaneously. Social
relationships too are not only maintained online, but increasingly can be
created in cyber space, ensuring that the internet has truly become the gateway
to the world, from the comfort of your own home or handheld device.

Yet
this happy tale of progress, flexibility, global enterprise and opportunity
would fail to be a human story without the full consequences of human nature.
Just take the last month or so. We have had the Prime Minister talking about
online pornography “corroding childhood”; the Home Affairs Select Committee
claiming that the UK is losing the war on cybercrime (worth over $388 billion
globally per year); Twitter trolls issuing rape, bomb and death threats to
celebrities, and the desperately tragic death of yet another teenager following a
shocking case of cyber bullying.

Violent pornography, internet trolls and cyber
bullying – the ugly side of the internet has been on display. In truth, it is the
ugly side of our very own society, visible in high definition through a
computer screen.

For
younger generations the internet is neither new nor extraordinary, rather, it
has always been part of their everyday life, the net’s ugly side included. Just
last year a survey by the Science Museum found that four out of five under 25s
would 'feel lost’ without the internet. The same generation is more likely to
self-diagnose illness online rather than go to their GP, and according to www.cybersentinel.co.uk,
one in four teenagers also admit to talking to strangers regularly online.

The
centrality of the internet to young people’s lives can be summed up by just one
statistic – that teenagers in the UK spend an average of 31 hours a week
online. Undertaking any activity for 31 hours a week is likely to have an
impact on an individual, and so the same is true for an entire generation.

The
big question for society is whether the internet is fundamentally changing the
personalities, social interactions, and temperaments of young people. Take the
tragic death of Hannah Smith, who committed suicide aged 14 just last week
after being subject to vicious and repetitive online abuse. Hannah was using an
online site called www.ask.fm.
This ‘chat’ site allows users to post anonymous messages to one another. One
comment to Hannah recently read ‘do us all
a favour n kill ur self’,
another ‘go
comit suicide but suced pls’
, and unbelievably ‘go cut ur self and die’.

Hannah’s motive for going online was to
air her problems about eczema and self-harming. The perceived invisibility of
the internet seems to give some young people the self-confidence to make
outrageous comments.  Likewise, for many sensitive
young people, the internet is an outlet to release fears and concerns, without
having to talk to an adult or peer face-to-face.

Whether
it is those who seek the solace of online friends, those who desire the
opportunity to create alternative personalities, or those who simply want to get
away with behaving in a disgusting manner, the same
reality is true – many of our young people are completely dependent on the
internet. The social development and interaction of an entire generation is increasingly
taking place online. In essence, we are witnessing the emergence of an internet
dependency. 

Encouraging
parental oversight, introducing filters and calling on providers to monitor and
report bad behaviour are all noble attempts to crack down on the misuse of the
internet. Without the installation of CCTV into every household in the country,
however, there is no single government initiative or policy which can
adequately tackle this dependency.

It is a uniquely human issue, our behaviour
behind closed doors and now behind the glare of a computer screen. The issue
represents the individuality in each of us, our choices and our judgments, our
ability to know right from wrong, to weigh up actions with consequences.
Ultimately, in an increasingly technological world, reviving the importance of
individual responsibility is the only practical answer to challenging the ugly
side of internet use.

Responsibility
is often preached about, but too few young people really engage with the value.
Courage, conviction, loyalty, ambition – these are all values which are
promoted and encouraged, but do we do enough to advance responsibility as an
important value amongst young people? 
Too often it is used as a buzzword by politicians and in negative sense
by parents and teachers who bemoan a lack of it when disciplining. The positive
link between responsibility and rights, including freedoms, has been lost.

In
our schools, personal development lessons should be built around the idea of
individual responsibility. It’s no good simply telling young people not to
misbehave on the internet. There has to be a much clearer understanding of
accountability. Being young is no longer an excuse. On the contrary, being young
often means being far more technologically aware than older generations. The
fact that our society, as well as our internet, is so firmly in the hands of
the young is what makes the future of our ‘digital age’ completely
unpredictable.

In the meantime, we are left to ponder whether the remarkable
benefits of the web will, in the long-term, be a price worth paying should the
current internet dependence tighten its grip on the young. 

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