The dangers of the web for young people: fake news or real risks?

A second class. The desks are arranged in a circle. The students, slightly dazed, evoke the following situation: a friend would have been filmed without her knowledge during a sexual act, and her video is circulating on the web.

- Adrien: Already, I said to him: "Don't even kill yourself". Because young people can kill themselves too much.
- Margot: If this happens to me, I will be traumatized so I commit suicide.
- Romane: I'm killing myself, that's clear. Because afterwards all the people will talk about me. (First names have been changed)

LThe anecdote will not reassure any parent or adult. It remains that in a recent survey conducted with middle school and high school students from the Île-de-France region, suicide was on everyone's lips, even if it was not addressed, directly or indirectly, by any of the researchers conducting the interviews. The students spontaneously spoke of the despair that could be engendered in their peers, especially in girls, struggling with delicate situations on the Internet, mainly of a sexual nature, where their reputation would be seriously damaged.

What dangers of the Internet?

Despite the omnipresence of suicide in the discourse of young people, it is not one of the “great risks” associated with their cyberpractices. In the 2014 version of the survey European Union Kids Online, conducted among 10 young people from 000 countries, 33% of young people aged 17 to 9 report having been bothered or disturbed by something on the web in the past year.

So what are these great risks associated with cyberspace for young people? According to the media and public institutions, there are at least four levels of these dangers: exposure to unwanted content (pornography, violence), contact by an unknown person (stranger danger), addiction to digital tools and cyber-harassment. Thus, the exposure of young people to pornography is perceived as problematic, whether it is unwanted or consumed voluntarily. In recent survey among a representative sample of French adolescents, 55% of boys and 44% of girls who have already had sex consider that pornography has influenced their learning of sexuality, several claiming to have already "tried to reproduce scenes or practices ”seen in porn videos.

That said, despite what the mass media point out, the main risk-taking for young people is not exposure to unwanted sexual content, nor to be approached by a unknown sexual predator, nor to develop addictive behavior to digital tools.

"There is no point in banning cellphones." Tamarcus Brown / Unsplash


It would be, according to sociologist Jessica Ringrose, sexual pressure exerted by peers and arbitrated on the web. “Sexual harassment has always existed, but sexual double standards are showing up in new ways with digital tools,” explains the researcher who is interested in the sexual regulation of girls and the emergence of feminist cyberactivism. “There is no point in banning laptops or limiting access to the web. What is needed is better sexuality education, education centered on gender equality ”.

Why navigate despite the risks?

By anchoring digital uses in the field of public health risks, we would come to forget that social networks and digital tools also present their share of opportunities. Indeed, as long as we are interested in the daily practices of adolescents, it is clear that they are much more nuanced than these public discourse on risk taking. In practice, however, cyberspace offers undeniable added value for adolescents who seek to establish their own identity, to be recognized by their peers and to distance themselves from their parents. family.

Apart from the entertainment aspect (videos, games) and support for schoolwork, digital practices indeed contribute to the nourishment of digital youthful sociability. Participation in the virtual world requires you to stage your own person, that is to say to present yourself to your advantage according to often strongly gendered criteria. The production of photos or videos thus allows an individual to prove that he or she has the latest technological gadget, has socialized with such and such a person or succeeded in such a feat valued by his peers. The challenge is therefore to draw attention to oneself, to obtain feedback from an audience, often in the form of likes.

In digital youthful sociality, the challenge is to draw attention to oneself. Luke Porter / Unsplash


The microsociological analysis of exchanges between adolescents on social networks suggests that they place a social value on the intimate links maintained with certain privileged peers. The work of the sociologist of communication Claire Balleys, in particular, suggests that the staging of these social links is often done around a reciprocal sharing of intimacy. Here, risk-taking (for example, by confiding a secret) is not only a necessary evil, but the clear proof of the trust thatwe grant to certain people. In this context, digital sociability should be understood not only as an extension of face-to-face sociability, but also as a way of strengthening it. This happens by sharing similar experiences (#balancetonporc), the dissemination of privileged information (secrets, rumors), the maintenance of the remote link or the facilitation of face-to-face gatherings. It is therefore easy to understand how much the game seems to be worth the candle, and to what extent the advantages observed daily justify the taking of occasional and potential risks such as the tarnishing of the reputation, the exposure to shocking images or the occasional solicitation. by a quidam.

What strategies to avoid the risks?

In most surveys, many young people report having implemented a strategy to minimize the risks to which they find themselves exposed. Their strategies differ depending on the problematic situations experienced or apprehended. Technical measures can be taken, either preventively or after having experienced an unpleasant event. We choose to modify the security settings, install filters or report problematic users to the decision-making bodies of the social network where they operate. We decide to sort the friendship requests or to block certain contacts. We recommend certain platforms to the detriment of others based on the possibility of being anonymous, we falsify the personal information given or we erase it. Tags identifying us in unflattering photos. We opt for choices of neutral and non-intimate profile photos.

Beyond these adjustments, young people report recommending other strategies to avoid dangerous situations without, however, jeopardizing their social position, since that is what is at stake. Adolescent girls interviewed in a British study are very creative in managing their reputation while sparing the sensibilities of boys to whom they refuse to send an intimate photo. Some avoid saying no so as not to sound prudish, but answer that a best friend has the desired photo. Others deplore not having enough credits to send the photo by SMS, or send that of a cat (instead of the requested “cat” photo…). Still others choose to upload the requested photos themselves, to be the actors of their production as well as of their distribution.

Risk prevention efforts obviously depend on how we think about them. It seems futile, for example, to repeat to girls to stop sending pictures of their bodies, as suggested some digital security campaigns. This is not to understand that it is the power dynamics between peers that allow the parts of the body of the girls (like the photos of the breasts) to be perceived as commodities of high value. It is ineffective to advise young people to exercise the utmost vigilance with those who come into contact with them if the main “danger”, in fact, comes from those close to them.

What if we accepted that when it comes to online risk-taking, the intuitions of adolescents and their knowledge of social networks are better than the injunctions of adults?

Gabrielle Richard, Gender sociologist, Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)

La original version of this article was posted on The Conversation.

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