Online safety

Arguably, no single innovation has changed the shape of modern life quite as much.

The Internet is one of the most remarkable "inventions" of our times.

It has altered utterly the possibilities for, and nature of, communication, that most basic of human interactions.

And it has changed it at all levels of society: in academia, in the military, in business, in politics, in finance, in the media, and in education.

Few, if any, realms of endeavour are untouched by it.

And New Zealand has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the world, at an estimated 80.5%.

According to Dr Jeffrey Cole, the California-based founder and director of the World Internet Project, who was in Queenstown this week for a conference organised by NetSafe - New Zealand's online safety organisation - 98% of New Zealanders will be online within 25 years.

The benefits of the World Wide Web are innumerable, and efforts are being made to make it more accessible by extending the reach and speed of broadband.

Figures just released show a 10.7% increase in the number of broadband subscribers in the past six months.

Both major political parties, Labour and National, appear to see it as critical to economic growth and international competitiveness.

But like any new technology, especially one so ubiquitous in its applications, it brings with it a host of "issues".

Many of these arise in the social arena, a fact underlined by the Queenstown conference: "Cybercitizens: Risks, Rights and Responsibilities of Participation in the Information Age".

Cyberbullying, cybersafety, social networking, child pornography and online grooming were all officially or unofficially on the agenda.

NetSafe is to be congratulated for raising awareness of attendant Internet "problems", many of which are becoming all too real: a conference report in this newspaper on Thursday canvassed the matter of "complicit victims" - children as young as 12 actively seeking sexual contact with adults on the Internet with little idea of the consequences of their actions.

Such children had been found to be willingly sending inappropriate images of themselves to adults met online.

Alongside this article was a report on the sentencing of a man who was facing eight charges relating to the downloading of more than 1000 images depicting or promoting the sexual exploitation of children, some as young as 3.

So there is nothing academic about the issues posed, particularly for children or teens, as they navigate their way along the super-information highway.

As a tool, for most young people the Internet is second nature.

They are as comfortable and confident with it as their parents were with libaries.

It is an asset in their studies and has become - through social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace, as well as Internet chatrooms - an essential element of contemporary interactive social life.

Dr Cole said this week that one of the biggest surprises of his eight-year World Internet Project, which monitors Internet use in 30 countries including New Zealand, was just this phenomenon.

Research in the United States showed 55% of people valued their online communities as much as their offline - or real-life - interactions.

Shocking though this may seem, it is fast becoming a reality that an older less "wired" generation must learn to accept, while helping to devise safeguards that will assist their children to negotiate the vast repository of unsuitable, potentially damaging, or downright dangerous material that is perennially a mouse click or two away.

All the best advice appears to be that imposing blanket bans is ineffective and counterproductive.

We are fast moving into an age where 3G wireless Internet capable cellphones will become the norm - and one way or another active and inventive children will circumvent access "roadblocks".

Intelligent dialogue, allied to a few hard and fast rules, is probably a better bet.

All responsible schools have Internet protocols in place and all parents should have their own.

The best will be those built on an understanding of the Internet's capabilities and potential, and how it relates to the various aspects of children's lives.

They will be built on the sort of long-term parent-child communication that governs other aspects of modelled and learned behaviour.

Because, like it or not, the Internet is now part of the fabric of all our lives.

It has changed the nature of communication, and it is changing the nature of society.

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