Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet

[Summary: Workshop report from the Internet Governance Forum, Nairobi, 2011]

I facilitated a workshop at this year’s Internet Governance Forum on the topic ‘Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet‘. The workshop report is available on the IGF Website, and also available to read below. I hope it can act as a useful resource in any policy work around young people and the Internet. Both the USA IGF, and Child Net’s Youth IGF Project held their own discussions and debates on the topic of ‘myths about young people and the Internet’ in the run up to the forum, and it seems to work well as a discussion format to dig deeper to understand young people’s online experiences.

I also shared some of the myths from the workshop in a recent keynote to the EU Safer Internet Forum, the slides from which you can also find below.


Workshop 92: Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet

Claims about youth are central to many Internet Governance discussions. However, many of the claims made about youth and the Internet are based on myth and misperception rather than on reality.

Myths come in a variety of forms. Some are compelling, but mistaken claims: intuitively plausible, but not backed by evidence and research. Others are based on stereotypes or distorted media coverage given to issues. Other myths are propagated by those with vested interests or particular agendas, seeking to secure support for their cause by making exaggerated claims.

Workshop 92 provided a space for constructive dialogue about how we should understand claims made about young people in Internet Governance. Contributions from ten panellists and the floor addressed a wide range of  myths or misunderstandings about young people and technology: highlighting where we need to think more deeply before making Internet policy based upon generalisations about children, young people and young adults.

This report looks at the myths in turn, before reporting some general points from discussion at the end. The Youth Coalition on Internet Governance will continue to develop a resource based on these myths to offer as an input for future IGF sessions. A number of the myths draw on headings from a list of common myths put forward by danah boyd.

The Myths

Myth: Young people are either digital natives, or digitally naive (Sheba Mohammid)

Our descriptions of youth and technology are frequently polarised with youth described as opposite extremes: either as digital natives, with ubiquitous understanding of technology, or digitally naive, and in need of protection. This can lead to technology projects ignoring the need to do work on pedagogical systems and educating youth; or it can lead to responses that perceive only the need for control and protection of young people online.

There is limited dialogue between those who describe youth as ‘natives’ and those who focus on youth ‘naivete’. The tendency to pigeonhole young people into one category or the other prevents us from developing a deeper understanding of diverse youth experiences of networked media, and how individuals can have different experiences at different times and in different spaces.

Talking about ‘digital natives’ or ‘digital naivete’ may have intuitive and rhetorical appeal – but whenever speakers use these phrases, they gloss over the reality of young people’s online lives and can lead to unhelpful policy responses. The following myths explore in more detail the subtleties that we need to bring to our discussions.

Myth: The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place (Alannah Travers)

“There are dangers online, as in the real world, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad, or only dangerous and never good.” 

Starting from the assumption that the Internet is inherently a dangerous place can have negative impacts on policy. It’s important to develop skills and resilience to protect yourself, and, as with crossing the road, once you’ve learned to manage the dangers, you can be secure and safe.

Myth: The Internet is a free playground for youth (Max Kall)

“The myth is that youth regard the Internet as a free and anarchic playground where they can do whatever they want, and actions can unfold in whichever way they desire. Young people can spend hours and hours on social networks, gaming, and the myth is that young people think it’s all free. It’s all open and whatever you do, it does not yield any negative consequences. 

The opposite is actually the truth. For many young people the Internet is everything but free.”

Youth are frequently aware of the possibility of surveillance from law enforcement authorities, companies, employers or just from teachers or parents, and this can lead to ‘chilling effects’, limiting freedom of expression and democratic participation on the Internet.

The impact of these chilling effects vary from country to country, with a BBC survey finding that up to 49% of people in ‘democratic countries’ agreed with statements that the Internet is not a free space, rising to 70% is some countries. One workshop participant highlighted self-censorship by bloggers in the Congo. By contrast, in France and Kenya, the BBC survey found that 70% or more of people did regard the Internet as a free space. As with any claim about youth and the Internet we need to question the geographic and cultural specificity of the claim. Regardless, the levels of young people feeling inhibited in their free expression of political views online should be a cause for concern.

Myth: Youth don’t care about privacy (Kellye Coleman and Connor Dalby)

“…there is a myth that youth don’t care about privacy. I think youth do care but at the same time youth don’t fully understand what privacy means.”

Young people value education that empowers them to make positive privacy choices, where reasons are given for why certain privacy behaviors might be important: “If the why of privacy is shared I think we as young people can become more empowered and invested in taking actions to protect ourselves.”.

Education based on ‘fear tactics’ is less likely to be popular amongst young people: “[Scare tactics] are the wrong way to go about it. You are scaring youth to not share things they should be sharing, great things, or [scaring them to] stop using the Internet or social networks altogether. The best way to go about it is teaching about settings, not trying to scare them too much but teaching them good things that we can improve.”

Cutting through myths about youth and privacy is complicated by the ambiguity of the term. Threats to privacy can be many and varied, and different people may value particular aspects of privacy differently: some willing to trade their personal data for services from Internet companies, others seeing this as a threat to privacy. Young people’s views on privacy in particular situations, such as whether Amazon’s personalised recommendations are a positive or negative thing, are as diverse as those of the adult population.

Myth: The Internet is the ‘great equalizer’ (Matthew Jackman)

On the one hand, the Internet is a place where anyone could start a business, or choose to express themselves. On the other hand, “if you want ask someone where they would find videos they would clearly say YouTube…We find a monopoly website which control whole sectors.”

Just because the Internet presents great possibilities for access to information that doesn’t mean that everyone can access and make the most of it.

“…the Internet has potential to bring equality but with so many barriers with access, be it disability or affordability and censorship …[in practice it doesn’t]”.

However, we should be careful about assuming that disabled people, for example, are not only at all. One delegate reminded the workshop that young disabled people often rely on the Internet as a first port of call for information and resources, confounding the common assumption that they are not online. Projects and policies need to address barriers to the the realization of the equalizing potential of the Internet.

Myth: All young Nigerians as cybercriminals (‘Gbenga Sesan)

“I’m sure everyone here has probably, not even probably, has, received an e-mail from somebody who claims to be a Nigerian prince.”

The stereotyping of a whole nation can have profound consequences on the young people who live there. Young Nigerians are locked out of e-commerce opportunities as services like PayPal block the Nigerian market. Young Nigerians seeking to participate in online discussions can find their e-mails deleted by spam filters. And “this myth prevents the world from knowing what exactly is going on with young Nigerians on the Internet”, such as the 2011 mobile-phone based election monitoring application development by young Nigerians, or recent investment into Nigerian online businesses.

The association in popular conciousness of Nigeria with cybercrime is a modern stereotype: but a particularly harmful one to youth and one that needs to be challenged.

Myth: Social media is addictive (Dan Skipper)

Claims about youth ‘Internet addiction’ or ‘addiction’ to social media are common in policy debates, and at the Internet Governance Forum: often leading to polarised arguments. Although a small number of people may exhibit “compulsively driven behaviour with negative consequences” in relation to the social media, and many young people prefer not to be without access to social media for long periods, general claims about youth Internet addiction are based more in rhetoric and myth than in evidence; and a focus on ‘addiction’ can divert a focus on important issues such as whether people are enjoying a great enough diversity of online experiences.

“I think social media is not addictive, just a luxury people enjoy using so you could in a way argue anything is addictive if you are saying social media is addictive. If you play a sport and you love playing and you play it every chance you get, same with being on social media.  If you enjoy social media, you use it as much as you can. I don’t think you can say it is an addiction.”

Myth: Young People are all creating their own online content (Gitte Stald)

It is commonly claimed that the Internet allows young people to become ‘content creators’, yet The EU Kids Online Research has found that very few young people are actually creating their own content online. “What the majority do is very mundane, and not creative.”

This can be seen as a missed opportunity both because young people are not exploring creative skills, and because it is recognised that there is a lack of good quality content for young people online – and peer-created content could help address this.

Myth: The digital is separate from the real world (Naveed-ul-haq)

Discussions of ‘cyberspace’, or ‘the virtual world’ or even ‘spending time online’ often have an implicit assumption that the digital world is separate from the real world. But for many young people (and adults) it is more accurate the say that the digital world is simply an integral part of the real world for many people.

“The most important thing that we do in our real world is communicate. How do we communicate with others and with people around us and talk about digital world? There are five billion mobile users: so we cannot say that digital world is separate than real world.”

However, policy makers, parents and teachers often frame discussions with an artificial divide between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ which doesn’t reflect the reality of young people’s lives, increasingly including the reality in developing world contexts too, where mobile phones mean everyone is carrying a connection to the digital world around with them.

Taking forward discussions

Delegate noted that simply presenting the myths challenged in the workshop would be a useful input to future IGF debates: allowing workshops planned in future to avoid framing debates around myths, and to ask better questions. Particular themes included

The importance of evidence

The session highlighted that two forms of evidence are vitally important. Firstly, high quality statistical evidence (particularly from studies using shared methods to promote International comparison) helping us to understand the prevalence of a wide range of online issues – from safety issues, to freedom of expression issues – and helping us to see the local variations in issues of importance at any particular time. We need evidence to help both highlight difference between contexts as well as commonality. Secondly, we need evidence and input from a diverse range of stakeholders, including diverse groups of children, young people and young adults – able to offer insights into the varied online experiences and opinions of youth.

The diversity of youth experience

The workshop discussions demonstrated that challenging myths and generalisations requires us to engage with a diversity of views and approaches to address key Internet issues. We were reminded that “we’ll not have one answer that fits all… what might work in developed countries might not work in developing countries”, and a debate between young panelists and delegates highlighted the range of different views held on whether censorship, web blocking and filtering was every appropriate.

A shared responsibility

One delegate issued a challenge to young people to think about how they can work to dispel myths about youth and the Internet, and another mentioned the possibility of using social media to challenge myths. The importance of challenging myths in local and regional debates was also raised.

Next steps

The Youth Coalition on Internet Governance (www.ycig.org) will continue to develop resources based on the workshop transcript and report.

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