Defining "Vulnerable" Children

A report from EU Kids Online (a research group which studies the online behaviors of youth from 25 different European countries) finds that about half of 11-16 year olds at least somewhat agree with the idea that it is easier to be oneself online than it is in a face-to-face environment; 12% say the statement is “very true.”

This finding is interesting in and of itself, though in some sense not that surprising. Behind a screen, it can be easier to share feelings, disclose information about oneself — the computer provides somewhat of a protective shield (at least temporarily) from the potentially negative reactions of peers. In a nutshell, this is what the disinhibition effect of social psychology is all about. In the long term, however, with the prevalence of cyberbullying (and online communication in general), this apparent protection can break down quite easily as one’s disclosures in the form of posts, texts, and pictures can more easily and quickly be spread, making a secret public knowledge in no time.

The study’s researchers frame their findings in a somewhat fear-based framework. They state that the 12% who more strongly believe they can be themselves online are:

  • “more likely to have problems with their peers, suggesting that they are seeking online relationships to compensate for offline ones;
  • more likely to look for new friends online, to‘add’ people or send personal information to people that they haven’t met face to face, or to pretend to be a different kind of person.”

What is not known, however, is why those youth have difficulty with their peers in the first place, which I believe is the key to all of this. And the researchers acknowledge their own uncertainties:
“Is it because they have personal or social difficulties in relating to people face-to-face, so the internet compensates in some way? Or is it because they spend a lot of time online and this leads them to feel more at home in an online environment?”

My own hunches lean me towards the former possibility — there is something about their social environments that drives them to seek acceptance online. After all, it isn’t hard to believe that 12% of youth find it difficult to be accepted in the social circles they encounter on a regular basis. In fact, that number might even be low if we are simply looking at feeling included as a youth, possibly demonstrating the resilience of young people.

Yet, this publication makes the assumption that stronger connections online are not to be desired and tries to further examine what is special about the youth who are more comfortable being themselves online than offline. Age and gender aren’t huge factors. But peer problems are — those youth who report more problems with peers are more likely to “find it easier to be myself on the internet.”

Solutions? None that are easy. Promoting acceptance of all youth regardless of their attractiveness, “coolness,” sexual orientation, gender identity, mental and/or physical challenges, would be ideal. But is it possible? As much as I want to say “yes,” I fear the immediate answer is “no.” But that should not stop us from working towards that goal — ever. In the meantime, let’s not assume that youth who find it easier to express their true selves online as opposed to offline are “vulnerable.” Perhaps, given their social environments, they are being resilient and finding communities and persons who welcome them as they are with open arms and monitors.

Note: To access the report, look for the link on “Risky Communication Online” published 2/8/11.

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One thought on “Defining "Vulnerable" Children

  1. Not that this needs to be posted online, but for your information, if you could use this someday. There is a House Bill under review in New Hampshire that would make it a felony to conduct searches of private areas of people in airports. If a person were found guilty of such an offense, they would have to register as a level 3 sex offender. Just because someone has a badge doesn't mean they're not going to engage in predatory acts. Again, I'm not sure this fits into any current topic of conversation, but perhaps it might be useful in the future.

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