The purpose of this short, provocative piece is to purport to the reader that whilst the Internet presents itself as a rich source of information, it also has the propensity to produce various dangers due to the nature of communication and identity construction embedded within the World Wide Web. Following Kapousis's (2010) conception of violence as a 'tool' (Kapousis, 2010), I posit that the Internet is also a tool which deviant individuals are able to exploit through the construction of multiple identities and personas in an attempt to satisfy deviant fantasies whilst retaining their anonymity. My illustrative example of such dangers is the recent proliferation of the sexual on-line grooming of children.
THE INTERNET AND THE NETWORK SOCIETY
Without question, the Internet is a social phenomenon. The advances in technological systems which have made its emergence possible are the result of social production, and social production is "culturally informed" (Castells, 2001a: p. 36). The Internet has, in recent years, become the "fabric of our lives," (ibid, p. 1) for "work, for personal connection, for social networking, for information, for entertainment, for public services, for politics, and for religion (Castells, 2010: p. 64); as a result, it is becoming an integral tool of commerce, communication, and popular culture (Brignall III and Van Valey, 2005). However, despite its universality, a body of literature has emerged criticising the Internet for the de-humanisation of social relationships (Slouka, 1995; Kraut et al., 1998), media reports have linked it with increasing levels of loneliness, depression, and social isolation (McKenna and Bargh, 2000), whilst 'technopessimists' have suggested that the Internet is endowed with the capability to end "civilisations, cultures, interests, and ethics" (Berson, 2003: p. 6). Some commentators, however, have adopted a more optimistic standpoint and have defended the Internet arguing that through the performance of 'roles' and construction of 'on-line identities' users create a feeling of community (Rheingold, 1993; Turkle, 1995; also see Young, 2008). For the purposes of this paper, I will present the Internet as neither negative nor positive, but rather, as inanimate, a tool which entails various uses (Brignall III and Van Valey, 2005; Shannon, 2008; see also Kapousis, 2010). This position also mirrors that taken by Castells (2010) who suggests that both consumers and producers utilise the Internet as a tool through producers "providing content and shaping the web" (op cit, p. 382).
The Internet forms part of a much larger, significant social change which has occurred over the past three decades - the emergence of the 'network society' (Castells, 2001a, 2009, 2010; van Dijk, 2006 Hardt and Negri, 2000). It is beyond the scope of this short paper to provide a comprehensive, all-embracing analysis of the network society and all of its components, therefore the emphasis will be positioned upon the changes which have occurred in communicatory practices. The 'network society' emphasises the form and organisation of information processing and exchange, in this sense, we may define the network society as "a social formation with an infrastructure of social and media networks enabling its prime mode of organisation at all levels (individual, group/organisational and societal)" (van Dijk, 2006: p. 20). It is important to note that in Western societies the individual is increasingly becoming the basic unit of the network society, whereas in Eastern societies the basic unit remains to be groups - such as the family, community, or work team (ibid, 2006).
Within this paradigm the Internet can be defined as an 'integrated network' (Castells, 2010; van Dijk, 2006). It is an integration of both data communication and mass communication (van Dijk, 2006), particularly since the emergence of the World Wide Web, which through an explosion of web pages created by organisations, companies, institutions, and user-created content (i.e. blogs, forums, bulletin-board systems (BBS), and non-profit sites such as Wikipedia.org), which has resulted in the mass communicative character of the Internet becoming increasingly visible (ibid, 2006). Consequently, the Internet has become a medium through which communication is mediated on a daily basis. However, the Internet does not replace existing forms of communication but, rather, it supplements them. In this sense, the Internet adds new forms of social capital to traditional ones, these forms may include "selecting and contacting complete strangers with particular characteristics, types of online conversation, and the initiative to act both on-line and offline" (ibid, p. 169). This is evident in a study undertaken by Katz and Rice (2002) which found that more than a tenth of American's had established on-line friendships. Similarly, they found that over ten per cent initiated offline contact of which a significant majority (85%) described positive experiences (Katz and Rice, 2002).
IDENTITY ON THE INTERNET
Let me now turn to the issue of identity, particularly identity which is mediated and constructed over the Internet. My suggestion here, is, that the Internet functions as a 'gateway' through which social beings are increasingly enabled to present themselves as they desire (Heyboer, 2007). Thus, any dangers which may result from the construction of anonymous identities which currently exist on the Internet are dependent upon the individual's application of the technology, in this sense, the Internet is a 'tool' (Brignall III and Van Valey, 2005; Shannon, 2008; Kapousis, 2010). The construction of multiple identities, however, is not a new phenomenon. Writing more than half a century ago, Erving Goffman (1990/1959) suggested that individuals create various 'faces' or 'masks' which are applied depending upon the specific social arrangement. The subsequent experiences which the individual encounters help shape their reality and thus forms who they are. As Goffman (1959) suggests:
In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves the role we are striving to live up to-this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons
Despite the time period in which Goffman (1959) was writing, and that the identity construction he was theorising primarily occurred in face-to-face interactions, his insights are of high importance in relation to identity construction on the Internet. Of course, a central objection to the notion of self-presentation on the Internet is the importance Goffman places upon the physical 'setting' of interactions, here the setting involves "furniture, décor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within, or upon it" (ibid, pp. 32 - 33). However, applying the example of social network sites (SNSs) such as Facebook and MySpace, we can posit, albeit hypothetically, that the furniture is replaced by buttons and applications, the décor replaced by profile pages with varying designs (particularly for MySpace), the physical layout replaced by (in Facebook), communities and so forth, and stage props may include the instant chat function or messaging system which are embedded within the wider virtual social environment created by SNSs.
Thus, it is possible to suggest that the 'presentation of self' has become virtualised. An example of such virtualisation is present in the 'about me' sections constructed within people's profile pages. In doing so, users are indulging in a presentation of self whereby they paint a succinct picture of their persona, their self, as they desire; however, it is important to note that such personas may be exaggerated or completely constructed. The following quote, extracted from an 'about me' section on social networking site Vampire Freaks - tailored for 'gothic and industrial culture' -, provides an eloquent example of such actions:
I'm a fucking human bitch!
I'm an epic nerd.
I have no life.
I'm awesome and I'm just that arrogant to admit it.
I'm also a vegetarian because eating animals is rude, would you go into someone's house and slaughter there family because you're hungry? I don't think so.
I like cute scene guys who make me smile :)
I love to tease my hair and draw my makeup wild. don't like it? I suggest you get off my profile now.
I like to get drunk and piss on people, then blame it on the booze ;)
(16-year-old girl from Vancouver)
Here, a unique form of self-presentation is present. We learn that the person is vegetarian, heterosexual, and abides to - arguably - widespread 'teen culture' through the consumption of drugs and alcohol without any form of engagement with the actual person, be it virtual, face-to-face, or otherwise.
Two studies have demonstrated the prevalence, amongst children and teens, of identity construction on-line. The first, conducted in 2001, found that 24 per cent of teens (12 - 17 years-old) who have used IMs (instant messaging) and email or attended chat rooms have constructed a false identity when communicating on-line (Lenhart et al., 2001), this finding was replicated in the second study, undertaken in 2005, which found that 40 per cent of minors (6 - 17 years-old) indulged in 'identity play' on-line (Livingstone and Bober, 2005). Importantly, a third of teens (33%) reported receiving emails and instant messages off somebody who provided fake information about themselves (Lenhart et al., 2001) and 31 per cent reported receiving unwanted sexual messages (Livingstone and Bober, 2005).
Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.View our services
The findings which have emerged from these studies suggest that at the core of children and other youth's use of the Internet is the formation of a culture in which minors are functioning as active social agents and consciously constructing identities on the Internet. Such actions increase the risk of victimisation considerably, the following section will consider the consequences of identity construction in relation to the 'on-line grooming' of children and minors.
WANNA CYBER =P?
THE INTERNET AND ONLINE GROOMING
Over the past decade, as a result of significant social changes in communicatory practices and the growth in electronic media used to supplement traditional forms of interaction amongst young people, Internet use amongst children and teenagers has grown exponentially. Reports suggest that a considerable number of children and young people (9 - 17 years-old) now access the Internet (74% at home, 92% at school) on a regular basis (41% daily, 42% weekly) (Livingstone and Bober, 2005), with half of 7 - 16 year-olds in the United Kingdom having access in their bedrooms (ChildWise, 2010). Meanwhile, in the United States, the number of teens (12 - 17 years-old) 'going on-line' has now reached 93 per cent (Lenhart et al., 2010). Due to this almost ubiquitous use and increased interaction with the Internet, children are now at a considerably greater risk of deviant individuals who hide behind the 'electronic cloak' of deviance (Di Marco and Di Marco, 2003) the Internet provides through retaining the anonymity of an individual's identity. Such risks are evident in the increasing number of global sex crimes which are committed over the Internet, particularly against children and youths (Leander et al., 2008), with as many as three million crimes reportedly occurring in 2006 (Kierkegaard, 2007). Thus, the purpose of this section is to illuminate the sexual on-line grooming of children, an increasing phenomenon (Shannon, 2008), as an 'unintended consequence' (Merton, 1968 ) of the social changes in our communicatory practices and the influence which technology has imposed upon such changes.
The sexual grooming of children is not a new phenomenon, neither is the conceptual use of the term 'grooming'. The term has been in circulation for a considerable period of time, for the most part applied by psychologists in attempts to analyse patterns of deviant sexual behaviour (McAlinden, 2006). However, the area has suffered from a lack of academic inquiry and thus the term 'grooming' has become increasingly ambiguous, particularly in its application (Craven et al., 2006). Nevertheless, the most reliable definition is provided by Gillespie (2002) who defines grooming as "the process by which a child is befriended by a would-be abuser in an attempt to gain the child's confidence and trust, enabling them to get the child to acquiesce to abusive activity" (Gillespie, 2002: p. 411). Through avoiding the use of the term 'paedophile', this definition provides a clarity concerning the rationale of grooming and the systematic stages such processes are most likely to take.
Traditionally, the process of sexually grooming a child with the intent to abuse them would require assuming a position of trust (such as a teacher, caretaker, or lollypop man). From this, the individual would form a relationship with his/or her 'victim' before attempting to engage in sexual activity
Traditionally, the sexual grooming of children usually occurred when an adult would assume a position of trust (such as a teacher, caretaker, or lollypop man) and build a relationship with the intention to ultimately abuse the minor (Finkelhor, 1984). However, the Internet has now offered itself as an application through which like-minded individuals can far easily access such social spaces where children 'hang' and convalesce, such as social network sites or chat rooms. As Shannon (2008) eloquently states, "(the Internet) has created a new and for the most part completely unmonitored interface between children and adults" (Shannon, 2008: p. 160).
As has been noted, research in this area is quite limited (McAlinden, 2006; Shannon, 2008). Nevertheless, a comprehensive study conducted by Wolak et al., (2004) incorporating interviews and data from 2,574 law enforcement agencies and 129 minors (13 to 17 years-old) produced important results concerning the study of the on-line grooming of children. The authors found that whilst offenders were frequently deceptive on-line (52%), only a small proportion falsified their age by claiming to be over 18 (5%) (Wolak et al., 2004). The study also supported Livingstone and Bober (2005) and Lenhart et al's (2001) findings with a considerable minority of minors (9%) claiming to be over 18 (ibid, 2004). The findings demonstrate the dangers which the Internet enables through the formation of a culture whereby children and other youths are, in some cases, presenting themselves as adults without the constraints of the physical world, it is also important to note that this may be due to the imposition of a consumerist culture whereby children are sexualised, for example, through the provision of shirts with quotations such as 'pornstar', lingerie and padded bras (Hennessey, 2010). As David Cameron suggests, "Girls are encouraged to dress like women, wear lingerie and worry about what they look like" (Cameron, 2010 cited in ibid: unpaginated).
Important findings also relate to the nature of on-line interactions, for example, in a majority of instances sexual topics were raised and discussed with the victim on-line (83%) and a considerable number engaged in cybersex (20%) (ibid, 2004). Furthermore, a majority of on-line interactions transcended into offline meetings (74%), of which a frightening proportion (93%) resulted in sexual activity between the victim and offender, it is important to note, however, that a majority of sexual activity (79%) was consensual (ibid, 2004).
Wolak et al's (2004) findings raise considerable concerns regarding the on-line interaction mediated by minors. It appears, on the basis of the evidence, that children, whilst technically proficient, are culturally unaware of the wide-reaching, unintended, consequences of their actions on-line through the construction of identities and interactions of a sexual nature with older adults. However, put another way, one might suggest that as half of the adult offenders were deceptive (to some extent) a considerable amount of on-line grooming was conducted through the formation of intimate relationships, a hallmark of grooming practices. Indeed, in the study, 50 per cent of 'victims' reported feeling 'close or in love' with their 'offenders' (ibid, 2004). Such evidence leads one to ask the question 'Is the Internet dangerous, particularly for children?' My response to this is that the application of the technology, by both children and adults, provides the risks of victimisation and dangers for children. Thus, it is both a social and a public policy issue that is at hand. We must educate our children about the dangers of on-line communication, ensuring that they are aware and take the appropriate steps necessary to avoid victimisation. In fact, lessons in using the Internet safely are to become a compulsory part of the curriculum for primary school children, in the United Kingdom, from September 2011 (Fildes, 2010).
In conclusion, the Internet has, without doubt, fundamentally transformed the way human beings communicate on a global scale. As Castells (2010) notes "the Internet has posted the fastest rate of penetration of any communication medium in history: in the United States, the radio took 30 years to reach 60 million people; TV reached this level of diffusion in 15 years; the Internet did it in just three years after the development of the World Wide Web" (op cit, p. 382). It is important that whilst we view the overall changes as positive, we are also aware of the dangers that the Internet poses, especially for one of the most vulnerable cohorts of wider society - our children.
Cite This Work
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: