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Considerations and complications of our online world


17 November 2021 at 5:23 pm
Deb Tsorbaris
There are hidden risks to the online world that are particularly real for certain groups, writes Deb Tsorbaris, but she says the sector can empower children and young people by educating on media literacy, digital citizenship, help-seeking, and safe navigation of online spaces.


Deb Tsorbaris | 17 November 2021 at 5:23 pm


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Considerations and complications of our online world
17 November 2021 at 5:23 pm

There are hidden risks to the online world that are particularly real for certain groups, writes Deb Tsorbaris, but she says the sector can empower children and young people by educating on media literacy, digital citizenship, help-seeking, and safe navigation of online spaces.

As the Victorian community resumes some welcomed semblance of normality, our view of the post-pandemic world is starting to take shape. Key features of pandemic life – working, learning, educating, shopping, and entertaining ourselves online – look like they are here to stay to some degree, with the embrace of the digital world unlikely to be reversed. This sea-change in the way we operate has been welcomed by many, yet there are hidden risks to the online world that are particularly real for certain groups – children, young people, people with a disability and those experiencing vulnerability. 

For most of our history, we lived in troupes of around 100 people, with little or no exposure to outsiders. Most of our evolution took place under these conditions, priming us to function optimally in small, close-knit communities. The last millennium saw a dramatic change to this insular way of life, exposing us more and more to the outside world. With the invention and eventual widespread availability of the internet, we are now more connected than we could ever have imagined, with far-reaching consequences for our mental health and wellbeing.

There are now nearly four billion social media users worldwide, many of whom are young people. The link between social media and mental health problems in adolescents is well documented, with studies indicating that lengthy social media use is associated with decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, as well as depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance.  

The internet gives children and young people almost unlimited access to content from users around the world, intensifying social pressures that already weigh heavily on younger people. As our brains’ coping mechanisms are not fully developed until adulthood, teenagers are more prone to emotional distress than other age groups. Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok are hugely popular among young people yet do little to buffer their audiences from the potentially harmful content that they distribute. Instagram and TikTok play an undeniable role in promoting an image-focused worldview, contributing to an epidemic of low self-esteem among young people. 

Evidence of this can be found in the incidence of eating disorders. Eating disorders are most common in teenage girls and are more prevalent among discriminated groups, such as trans or gender diverse people. According to research, the relationship between social media is complex, but a strong association between social media consumption and restrictive eating behaviours exists. Image distortion, made possible by filters and other applications, and the constant exposure to unrealistic body ideals create significant emotional distress in many young people, which commonly presents in the form of eating disorders. 

In addition to the mental health implications of social and online media, the internet also opens new avenues for security threats that disproportionately affect groups experiencing vulnerability. Chat rooms and social media messaging services create opportunities for children and young people to virtually connect with people all over the world, providing child abusers and groomers with easy access to their victims. Limited regulation paired with young people’s constant engagement with the internet has meant that policing online child abuse has become an increasingly onerous task. The shift online as a result of the pandemic saw an uptick in the incidence of online child abuse, made all too easy by online schooling. In 2020, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation received more than 21,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation.

The shift online has had damaging consequences on the lives of families too. Media is now largely consumed online, and the infinite number of news outlets, both reputable and non-reputable, have led to the epidemic of misinformation that has infiltrated society at its core. Vaccine hesitancy and COVID-19 conspiracies were fueled by the ubiquity of online and social media, which is less regulated than traditional media, and has exposed people more than ever to unlimited yet uncorroborated information at their fingertips. Conflicting information and the fearmongering associated with much online media is the root of much stress and familial discord, which was heightened during the pandemic. 

Despite the risks, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare recognises the paramount role that the internet plays in modern society. Online connectivity allowed us to contain the spread of COVID-19 to a far greater degree while continuing with schooling and work during the pandemic. It also serves a social purpose. For young people, digital spaces allow for children and young people to reach out, connect with others with similar interests or experiences, challenge and share their creativity, and advocate for critical causes. Activities such as gaming can also benefit children if they form part of a well-rounded lifestyle. It is in this nuanced environment that the Centre adopts a balanced approach to online activity that harnesses the positive elements of online engagement while mitigating any potential harm.

The world has changed and we are quickly adapting to the new digital landscape. Raising awareness of the risks and opportunities of the internet is a good place to start, providing children, young people, parents, carers and the community with the information needed to make safe, constructive choices online. By educating on media literacy, digital citizenship, help-seeking, and safe navigation of online spaces, the sector can actively empower children, families and young people to use the internet as a force for good. There is much to be done, but I am confident that this vision of the digital world can be realised. 


Deb Tsorbaris  |  @ProBonoNews

Deb Tsorbaris is the CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the peak body for child and family services in Victoria.

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