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Teeny-weeny and naughty on the Net

D. Murali

The `psychological impact' of the Internet on teenagers is a much-debated topic. Here's more on what's happening on the scene.

THE good-bad debate is as old as Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:15-20 has it that God told Adam to cultivate the garden, keep the garden, name the animals, and eat of the garden's fruit, except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Whether what Adam did was right or wrong is not for us to decide, but now, an academic study has pronounced that the Net is harmful for teens.

Dr Mubarak Ali Rahamathulla, a lecturer at Flinders University in South Australia, has been busy with "one of the first Australian studies into the psychological impact of the Internet on teenagers aged between 15 and 17", reports And his finding is that prolonged Net use may have "damaging psychological effects on introverted teenagers who were uncomfortable communicating with people in a one-on-one social situation."

Rahamathulla's study has taken him to chatrooms: "There are some horrendous things going on inside teen chatrooms at the moment," he says.

Also, he finds teenagers lured by web cams "as a vehicle to push their sexual boundaries". Why? "This age group is very curious," and you know that already. "They want to explore their sexuality and with the anonymity the Internet provides them, they are more willing to go to the extreme to get answers."

As if not too happy with what he has already pried into, Rahamathulla wants to include text messaging as part of his study.

Flinders Journal has an article about the study. Titled "Are our teenagers psychologically caught in the Internet?" it begins with a horror story: That of the 12-year-old British schoolgirl Shevaun Pennington who ran away from home with her Internet "lover", a 31-year old former US Marine.

Many parents and teenagers argue that the Internet has helped dissolve social barriers that once prevented them freedom of communication, concedes the Journal, though Rahamathulla's findings may now prompt a rethink.

A recent report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer emphasises that "monitoring kids' instant messaging (IM) is crucial". Why? Because these kids (some of them start off IM-ing in elementary school) are afraid that if they're not online every night, they'll be the odd person out. Sometimes, IM may eat up 50 per cent or more of their evening.

When too addicted to the new communication medium, you can find kids getting up in the middle of the night to IM.

A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, conducted three years ago, found that 60 per cent of teens had received an instant message or e-mail from a stranger, and 63 per cent of them responded.

A 2001 study by the same agency found that 89 per cent of sexual solicitations of youth were made in chat rooms or through instant messengers — the "two places teens flock to online".

There are more alarming statistics in "Tips to Help Keep Teens Safe Online" by Becky Worley, in Tech Live. A 2002 study of 4 million children aged 7 to 17 who use the Internet found that 29 per cent were willing to give out their home address and 14 per cent said they would freely give out their e-mail address if asked.

So, it is advised that parents educate their kids to "choose geographically vague screen names void of gender clues" - such as lion22, ford4ever, or blueberry; discourage them from creating online profiles; advise them to be sceptical of the new people they meet online; and so forth.

Net policing may also take the form of parents placing the computer in the living room rather than in the teen's bedroom, and also laying down a `one-hour a day limit' for IM-ing.

However, it is doubtful how far these controls could be effective.

A posting on the weblog compares the latest study to what the Carnegie Mellon University did about five years ago - to suggest that the Internet made people depressed.

"That study got a ridiculous amount of publicity, and its findings were quickly picked apart and discredited," writes Mike.

"The inherent assumption in the conclusion (of Dr Rahamathulla) is that communicating online is bad, while communicating in person is good."

The more you think about the problem, the more you may wonder who needs growing up faster - the teens or their parents.

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