The Internet Revolution

Sir Tim Berners Lee, the man who created the idea of the World Wide Web, or Internet, once said, "I think of the web as humanity connected", but what are the consequences of the instant connections of the web? What are the effects on how we think?

In the middle ages the invention of the printing press brought the printed word, and with it knowledge, to people in a way never done before. Many think of it as bringing knowledge from the few to the many and it had a huge effect of the development of Western civilisation.

To many the development of the internet takes that one step further in that the internet allows anyone to create information. In just over 20 years we've seen how the internet has profoundly changed culture, politics and business but people are only now considering how it is changing the way we interact with each other and the effect on our 'psychology'.

Internet Addiction

Many countries are now considering some of the detrimental effects of exposure to the internet. In South Korea, the worlds most connected country, the government estimates that internet addiction affects over 210,000 children. 62% of 3-5 year olds in South Korea spend over 8 hours online a week, this is more than twice what the same age group spend online in the UK. This is a growing problem with people around the world.

Social Networking

By the time children in the UK reach adulthood it is estimated they will have spent over 10,000 hours online and a large proportion of those will have been on social networking sites. These are sites that function like an online community and are designed to allow people to communicate online and cement or form friendships. Often they can share pictures and films as well as update their 'status' with what they are doing and thinking. There are a number of sites around – eg mySpace, Twitter and YouTube but by far the biggest and most well known is Facebook. It is estimated that there are over 1 billion users on Facebook – if it was a country it would be the world's 3rd largest and keeps on growing! It is estimated that more than 1 in 3 of us in the UK have a Facebook account with half of those users logging in daily for at least an hour!

The sheer volume of these kind of sites is staggering; 190 million 'tweets' are sent out each day on Twitter, 490 million unique visits to YouTube per month, over 3000 photos uploaded to Flickr every minute. They are the first places many of us visit when we go online. Businesses, politicians, journalists and celebrities are all using them to reach their markets.

These sites allow us to reach people we can't see every day, connecting us with friends and family all over the world in a way not seen before and without the high costs of international phone calls. They can provide us with entertainment; you can play games through some sites, share music, videos or photographs. Information can be shared around the world incredibly quickly. Opinions can be shared and important issues debated through this powerful new medium.

The dangers of social networking

However, as with most things, there is a down side to social networking. Although there are rules on many of the sites about who should be using them, these are not easily enforced. For example, Facebook states you have to be 13 to use it, but there is no official check in place to ensure users are putting in genuine dates of birth when they register.

A 2010 UK study showed that 28% of 9-10 years olds had a Facebook account and this rose to 59% of 11-12 year olds. One of the concerns is that children are being exposed to age-inappropriate material and leave themselves open to being contacted by people they don't know and asked to do inappropriate things.

There are many sites like Habbo Hotel and Moshi Monsters aimed at the children's market in social networking. These sites tend to have better e-safety moderating credentials but ultimately, because of the anonymous nature of the internet, you never quite know if the person on the other end of the computer is who they say they are!

Crime and Social Media

Since the rise of sites such as Facebook and Twitter there has been an estimated rise in alleged crimes related to them of 8 times in the last four years. This led to 653 people being charged with criminal offences in the UK in 2012 from nearly 5000 reported offences. Compare this with 2008 when there were only 46 people charged from 556 reported offences and you can see the explosion in the use of these sites has also led to an explosion in criminal activity using them. Much of the criminal activity relates to threatening behaviour, harassment and abuse.

It seems that some people think that the normal rules of society do not apply when 'chatting' online. Others say that it's too easy to type something hurtful without thinking through the consequences – once it's out there, it's out there – you can't get it back. Within a short period of time hundreds, and in some cases if it goes 'viral', millions of people have seen what you've written. Many police forces now have to put more and more resources into the policing of complaints relating to social networking sites. As their use continues to grow this is a real problem for them and our society as a whole.

Staying Safe

The internet is undoubtedly a powerful took for connecting with friends and family from around the world and opening up a world of information and possibility but like all things comes with responsibility.

A few simple rules will keep you safe online:

  • Always use the safety modes of a website if it's available and you are under 13;
  • Always tell someone if you come across anything that makes you feel uncomfortable;
  • Always make sure your privacy settings are such that only friends can see your photos and information;

  • Never make friends with people you don't know;
  • Never give out personal information publicly online – where you live, where you go to school, your full name or date of birth, telephone number etc;
  • Never agree to meet someone you've met online without checking with a parent;
  • Never give out your passwords for anything;