The Internet is a repository of knowledge, wisdom and resources. It has made the world a global village: people are able to make friends, carry out assignments and do business without leaving their homes. Job seekers no longer have to trek from street to street but can instead use the Internet to find and apply for work. Online shopping has become prevalent and distant learning institutions and open universities provide students with extensive online resources. Most notably, young people are growing increasingly web-savvy, launching companies and designing apps that revolutionise the way we engage with the world.
However, the story of Cynthia Udoka Osogu, a 25 year-old from Delta State, second runner-up of the 2009 Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria Pageant and the only daughter of a retired general, who was raped and murdered by 'friends' she met on Facebook, has made many question the safety of the Internet for young people and advocate the need for legislation to deal with cybercrimes to which they fall victim.
Although paedophiles predate the Internet, web technology has made it easier for them to carry out their crimes. Such predators look for vulnerable children who do not get along with their parents and are looking for someone to talk to, using social networking websites and chat rooms (sometimes posing as children or teenagers themselves) to initiate conversations with likely victims. They are skilled at eliciting as much information as possible about location, interests and even sexual experiences from children. Because communication on the Internet is public and largely anonymous, children often feel they are safe. The next step for the paedophile may be to show pornography of both adult and child to their victims. As they can't physically touch the child, they try to coax him or her into doing something sexual. If they can accomplish that, then the hapless child is more willing to meet the paedophile - a move which inevitably ends in tragedy.
The rape and murder of Megan Kanka, a seven year-old from New Jersey, USA, resulted in the passing of the USA's Sex Offender Registration Act (popularly known as Megan's Law) which requires information about sex offenders to be made available to the communities they live in, primarily through free public websites. Paedophilia, however, continues to be a disturbing issue and attempts to tackle it have resulted in the emergence of a number of online vigilante groups such as Perverted Justice Foundation Inc which try to track down and expose adults who pose as minors online and carry on sexual conversations with children and pass on the information they gather to the police for further action.
A no less troubling dark aspect of the Internet is cyber bullying ('the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person'). Last year, Amanda Todd, a 15-year old Canadian girl, committed suicide after she was blackmailed and threatened with a topless photograph of her which circulated online. There are some laws in place which address the online harassment of children: in the US for instance, laws geared at penalising cyber bullying have been introduced in a number of states including New York, Missouri, Rhode Island and Maryland. Legislation such as the California AB 86 Assembly Bill aims to protect children from harassment and bullying through electronic means by classmates. The UK government is working to make law a bill which would, amongst other things, hold Internet Service Providers (ISP) liable for the content (including child pornography) of sites they host.
The Internet offers many benefits to society by circumventing geographical distance to facilitate the flow of information and foster growth. It also has particular benefits for children and young people, who use it to expand their social networks, improve their study skills and launch future careers. However, the potential harm which lurks in the shadows of the web makes it necessary for us to reflect carefully on whether the positive aspects of this technology outweigh its dangers.
Do you think that the Internet is a safe enough space for young people? What more can be done to protect our youth? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
This piece was first posted on February 22, 2013.